The Dallas Cowboys put an end to the 2018 NFC East race on Sunday, jumping ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-20 from AT&T Stadium to clinch their second division title in three seasons. Relying on two forced turnovers to jump-start an offense that was held scoreless a week ago, the Cowboys left plenty of room for improvement as they focus on hosting a playoff game in two weeks.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith returned a Jameis Winston fumble 69-yards for the Cowboys second scoring, following a Dak Prescott rushing touchdown to put the Cowboys ahead early. Tampa Bay drew within 17-13 with a touchdown before the half, but came no closer to holding back Dallas in the second half thanks to another forced fumble from Randy Gregory that created a Michael Gallup touchdown.
Scoring off of their defense will likely have to continue for the Cowboys to have any playoff success, but for now here's more on how they punched their ticket to the postseason with their ninth win of the season – guaranteeing a winning season for third year in a row.
- Jaylon Smith's great afternoon started early, as he and Leighton Vander Esch rewarded the Cowboys faith in their young linebackers with Sean Lee a healthy scratch.
Smith's fumble recovery for a touchdown may be the highlight of his career, but Jaylon was more than ready to handle the dirty work for Rod Marinelli's defense in this game as well. With defensive captain Tyrone Crawford lost for the game on the Bucs' second play from scrimmage, the Cowboys easily could have come undone.
On their first play without Crawford, Mike Evans ran behind the Cowboys secondary for a 38-yard gain to the Dallas 13. With a run stop on second down and pass defended on third down, Smith assured the Bucs would manage just a field goal on their opening drive.
When considering how routine Smith makes these plays look, paired with his dash down the Cowboys sideline to beat the pursuit to the end zone on his touchdown, Smith's return from injury remains one of the most inspiring sports stories anywhere in recent memory.
- Much was made of Dak Prescott's zero rushing attempts last week at the Colts, rightfully so after his first attempt in two weeks went for a walk-in touchdown.
The Cowboys were their usual bashful selves in the red zone from this point on, but give Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan credit for calling Prescott's keeper at the right time.
Not only did Tampa Bay enter this game with the worst red zone defense in the league, but their 128.1 rushing yards allowed per game is sixth worse in the league. Prescott's fake to Ezekiel Elliott was all he needed to get outside the numbers and follow his blocks for an easy score.
- Maliek Collins continues to impress at the 3T-DT position, coming up with a sack of Winston that gave the Cowboys favorable field position on Brett Maher's first field goal.
As is the case up and down the Cowboys defensive line, the range all four players show on any given down is extremely impressive. In sacking Winston back at the two-yard line, Collins overpowered the left guard as Randy Gregory gave Winston nowhere to go with a strong rush off the right side.
It's possible the Cowboys will still add David Irving to their pass rush rotation for the playoffs, giving them plenty to like about their ability to get after the quarterback from all four spots. Despite adding his name in the penalty book a few more times Sunday afternoon, Gregory again looked like a pass rusher capable of carrying a defense – lined up across from a proven game changing talent in DeMarcus Lawrence.
For as much publicity as this edge rushing duo can earn in two weeks time, the disruptive combination of Collins and Antwaun Woods on the inside has been equally important for the Cowboys defense.
Gregory's second forced fumble allowed the Cowboys to create all the separation they would need with a four-yard score extending Dallas' lead to 27-13 in the fourth quarter.
- This touchdown was of course provided by Michael Gallup, winning on an outside fade route to bail out another questionable play call from Linehan in the red zone.
The play Gallup scored on was nearly identical to the fade the Cowboys threw on first and goal, though incomplete to the other side of the field for Noah Brown. Gallup caught Brent Grimes flat-footed and found more than enough room in the back of the end zone to secure a well-timed ball from Prescott.
Given that Amari Cooper saw just five targets in this pivotal game for the Cowboys, their distribution on offense leaves a lot to be desired. Gallup still deserves credit for the strides he's made as an athletic play maker on the ball, growing up in a hurry as the team's third round pick to compliment Cooper well.
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All that stands between the Cowboys and yet another opportunity to host a playoff game is a meaningless trip to MetLife Stadium to face the New York Giants. A win would give the Cowboys their first ten win season since Prescott and Elliott's rookie year, and although this season has mostly failed to capture that same magic, there's hope for Dallas again after bouncing back from a shutout to win a division in front of their home fans.