Gamenight: Bucs most significant December game in 8 years in Dallas

Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

Arlington, TX

What’s At Stake?

The Cowboys aren’t just one of the best teams in the NFL this year. They’re one of the best stories. All but left for dead after losing quarterback Tony Romo to a back injury during the preseason, the Cowboys have ridden the backs of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott to the top of the NFC standings, where their 11-2 record has them in position to secure home-field advantage through the playoffs. The Bucs, meanwhile, have turned into a pretty good story themselves. All but left for dead after a 1-3 start, they have won five straight and are in position to not only secure their first playoff berth since 2008 but perhaps take their place as one of the darlings of the NFL. The Bucs are a team made up players fans might like to root for if they ever get a chance to find out who they are and what they’re all about. Fans outside of Tampa Bay will likely get that chance if the Bucs can beat the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. So in addition to all the playoff implications, respect and a solid place in the national football discussion is what’s at stake for the Bucs tonight.

Key matchup

Buccaneers four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy admitted earlier this week that this is probably the biggest game he’s ever played in as a pro. He’ll have a big say in its outcome as well as it will be McCoy who has to find a way to outplay Cowboys two-time Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin and not only get to quarterback Dak Prescott but slow running back Ezekiel Elliott. No easy task there. The Cowboys 2014 first-round pick, Martin has an excellent blend of power and mobility, enough to create creases for Elliott and time for Prescott. McCoy, though, brings a lot of the same attributes and while Martin has done well against some of the league’s best interior linemen he probably hasn’t faced anyone with McCoy’s skill set and savvy. McCoy will also be aided by the presence of ends Robert Ayers, Noah Spence and Will Gholston and tackle Clinton McDonald, all of whom are good enough to draw a double team themselves and leave Martin one-on-one with McCoy.

Statistically speaking

Has Dallas rookie quarterback Dak Prescott hit the rookie wall? It sure looked like it a week ago during the Cowboys 10-7 loss to the Giants. Prescott completed just 17 of 37 passes (45.9 percent) for 165 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a season-worst passer rating of 45.5. It was the third straight game in which Prescott has thrown for less than 200 yards and in his last two games he’s completed just two of the 24 passes he’s thrown on third down. That’s a trend that would seem to work well in the Bucs favor as Tampa Bay’s defense currently ranks second in the NFL with a 34.2-percent third-down conversion rate. The key to succeeding on third down for the Bucs will be to get the Cowboys in third and long situations where the Bucs can unleash their pass rushers. That will mean slowing rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott. That has to be Job 1 for the Bucs. Elliott has run for a league-leading 1,392 yards so far this year and has earned a league-high 82 first downs.

He said it

“We’re playing with confidence and I think these guys have earned a certain amount of swagger. I think that comes with the territory. But if we’ve earned some swagger, how much has Dallas earned? They just had an 11-game winning streak snapped and we’re sitting there with Detroit at a five-game winning streak. That looks kind of puny compared to Dallas’ 11-game winning streak.” – Bucs coach Dirk Koetter

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