The battle between the Bucs and the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football could be the biggest game Tampa Bay has played in over a decade.
Sunday night it will be the Tampa Bay Bucs (8-5) facing the Dallas Cowboys (11-2) in “The House that Jerry built.” It will be played in prime-time and seen by the entire country on NBC.
It has been over a decade since the Bucs have a game so important to the franchise as the one the will play Sunday night. The Buc are tied with Atlanta atop the NFC South and riding a five-game winning streak.
Tampa Bay’s longest unbeaten run since 2002 is turning heads, but the Bucs aren’t getting caught up in the hype. There is no question that with a win or for that matter, a close game would vault Tampa Bay into the national headlines as the hottest team in the NFC.
“That’s for the media and you guys to say,” defensive end Robert Ayers told reporters this week. “All I know is that we’re 8-5 right now, we’re trying to get to 9-5. We’re taking it one game at a time and we’re trying to keep hunting. We let you guys give labels and stuff like that, but I know we’re hungry.”
Want to know if the Bucs can beat the Dallas Cowboys Sunday Night Football? Listen to this edition of “The Sunshine Boys,” podcast with Ira Kaufman, Joe Henderson and Jim Williams.
As coach Dirk Koetter said, “We’re an 8-5 football team, but we’ve got bigger goals than that.”
In addition to the division race, the Buccaneers control their postseason destiny by sitting in the second wild card slot in the NFC. The playoffs are in view.
“It’s in my mind, but going 1-0 (each week) is very important to us as a team,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We’re not really trying to look forward. (Offensive coordinator Todd Monken) says all the time, ‘Be where your feet are.’ We’ve got to keep winning. As long as we keep getting W’s, the playoffs are going to be in there.”
Defense has carried Tampa Bay during its streak. The Bucs have given up a league-low 12.8 points per game since Week 10. The six total touchdowns scored by opponents are tied for the fewest during that span.
The offense has struggled some under Winston, scoring just six touchdowns in the last four games. The reasons for the sputtering attack are varied.
“Sometimes it might be the play call, it might be execution, it might be a penalty, a combination of all those things,” Koetter said. “I know how these guys can play on offense and I know when we get there.”
Meanwhile, Dak Prescott is 11-2 as a starting quarterback. He’s thrown for 20 touchdowns with only four interceptions and his team has the best record in the NFC and is tied with the New England Patriots for the NFL’s top mark.
The season has gone better than anyone’s wildest expectations.
So, should Prescott be looking over his shoulder?
Hey, it is the Dallas Cowboys owned by Jerry Jones with Tony Romo holding a clipboard. This a team that like it or not seems to attract more than their share of drama.
While, the Cowboys didn’t invent quarterback controversies, that said over the years the franchise perfected the art of pitting signal callers against each other in the press and among the fandom.
In this case to be fair, the Cowboys aren’t publicly talking about benching Prescott in favor of veteran and longtime starter Romo. Such chatter also doesn’t appear to be taking place behind the scenes.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett reiterated as much going into Sunday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“You can make it as simple or as complex as you want to make it,” Garrett told reporters at his weekly press conference. “It’s pretty simple for us: Dak’s going to play quarterback as we go forward.”
Prescott is coming off a series of subpar performances, at least by his standards, culminating in Sunday’s 10-7 loss at the New York Giants. Dallas’ offense has sputtered, and Prescott is finally playing like a rookie.
The fourth-round pick from Mississippi State completed just 17 of 37 passes for 165 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions against the Giants. It was the first time this season he’s thrown multiple picks in the same game.
Prescott has failed to reach 200 yards passing in each of his last three games. The Cowboys have been successful on just 2 of 24 on third-down conversions in the last two contests. Dallas has scored just 24 points in those two games.
Despite all of this, Garrett appears to have no interest in turning to Romo.
We’re just focused on Dak playing quarterback for us,” Garrett said. “And we’ll continue to do that in our preparation this week and as we go forward.
“He’s done a really good job for us up to this point, won 11 of 13 games that he’s started, and he’s handled really every situation as well as you can handle it, so we’ll just continue that way. Tony will be in a backup role for us and he’ll be ready to go if he’s called upon to play.”
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones has helped stoke the controversy fires with comments in recent weeks suggesting that Romo will play a significant role before the season ends.
Jones admitted on his radio show this week that Romo getting into a game is a possibility due to injury or poor play by Prescott.
“I understand the question, but I don’t want to get into the scenario,” Jones said. “It goes too far into talking about what we don’t want to talk about. But given the need for (Romo), we want him ready on the spur of the moment.”
The Cowboys have a playoff spot secured and their magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC is two with three games to play.
Dallas leads the series 13-4 against Tampa Bay, but the Bucs won 10-6 last season.
Some quotes used in this story were from the ASSOCIATED PRESS and don’t forget to listen to The Sunshine Boys podcast featuring Ira Kaufman, Joe Henderson and Jim Williams for the best Bucs coverage.