ARLINGTON, Texas — Halfway home and the Cowboys are on track to clinch the NFC East division title.
Although the Dallas defense has had problems slowing down Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers offense at times, the vibe is a whole lot better for the Cowboys than a week ago when the Colts put Dallas in an afternoon-long funk.
The Cowboys put their shutout woes from Indianapolis behind them in the first half as they drove for a touchdown on their first possession and scored their first defensive touchdown of the season.
Quarterback Dak Prescott sparked Dallas’s first drive by hitting Michael Gallup for a 31-yard gain on a third-and-12 from the Cowboys’ 34. Prescott finished the 8-play, 75-yard march by keeping on a read option and running 7 yards for the touchdown.
That was the Cowboys’ only extended drive of the first half, but it at least showed Dallas is capable of scoring a touchdown in the red zone.
Dallas didn’t have to worry about the red zone, or even take over on offense to add to its lead.
Tampa Bay was driving in Dallas territory when defensive end Randy Gregory sacked Winston, causing him to fumble. Linebacker Jaylon Smith scooped the bouncing ball on the run and darted 69 yards for a score.
Smith’s touchdown, the first defensive score of the season for the Cowboys, put Dallas in front 14-3 with 1:41 left in the first quarter.
Cowboys kicker Brett Maher showed off his dynamic leg strength late in the second quarter when he hooked a 59-yard field goal just inside the right upright. Maher’s second field goal of longer than 55 yards this season — he hit a club-record 62-yarder against Philadelphia two weeks ago — put Dallas ahead 17-6 with 1:48 left before halftime.
But the Buccaneers answered with a penalty-aided 75-yard scoring drive in the final two minutes of the second quarter. Personal foul penalties on Gregory and safety Xavier Woods contributed 21 yards to the march. Bucs running back Jacquizz Rodgers finished it with a two-yard run, cutting Dallas’s lead to 17-13.
Cowboys defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford left the game on a stretcher in the first minute of the contest with a neck injury. He was on the turf for several minutes after taking a shoulder to the neck area. The injury was initially ruled a strain and Crawford was able to move his arms and legs. But he was taken to an area hospital for evaluation.
Whether it was Crawford’s absence or other factors, the Cowboys struggled to get off the field. Tampa Bay stacked up 206 total yards and out-gained Dallas by 90 in the first and second quarters.
So the big question for the second half: Can Dallas generate the big plays it needs on offense to stay ahead of the Bucs?