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Dallas Cowboys-Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Things to watch Sunday night

Keith Tandy had a fourth-quarter interception last Sunday for the second straight week.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Keith Tandy had a fourth-quarter interception last Sunday for the second straight week.

It's a sure sign of the newfound national interest in the Bucs that they have been flexed to later kickoffs three weeks in a row, including a prime-time showdown tonight against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.

The Bucs bring a five-game win streak to Dallas — if the Lions lose this afternoon, the streak will be the NFL's longest — and here are five things to watch as the Bucs try to match the longest win streak in their history.

1. Can the Bucs dominate on third downs?

Tampa Bay's the only team among NFL's 10 best offenses and defenses on third down. The defense ranks second on third downs, allowing a 34 percent success rate; the offense ranks sixth, converting 44 percent.

This is a problem for Dallas. In its past two games, the Cowboys offense is 2-for-24 on third downs; that's 8 percent. Dallas went 1-for-15 in a loss to the Giants last week and 1-for-9 in a win over the Vikings the previous week.

The Bucs defense was especially good on third and short against New Orleans last week. The Saints came in as the league's best third-down offense but went just 1-for-5 on third and 2 or less. A performance like that will help in time of possession, where Dallas ranks second in the league and Tampa Bay is fourth. Win the clock, you might win the game.

2. Can the Bucs defense get a fourth-quarter interception?

It has been magical with the Bucs' interceptions in the fourth quarter lately — S Chris Conte against the Chiefs, S Bradley McDougald against the Seahawks, S Keith Tandy against the Chargers, and CB Brent Grimes and Tandy against the Saints. That's five in four games.

Dallas hasn't thrown a fourth-quarter interception all season, joining the Patriots as the only teams without one. The Bucs have thrown only two — one on Jameis Winston's Hail Mary on the final play at Arizona, the other against Seattle, picked off by S Kam Chancellor.

Dallas' defense doesn't get many INTs — just five, with only the Jaguars (three) having fewer. The Bucs have made such a turnaround in takeaways that they have a better margin (plus-6) than the Cowboys (plus-2).

3. Can rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo extend his field-goal range a little?

The longest field goal he has made is 43 yards, going 0-for-4 on longer attempts.

The Bucs and Dolphins could be the first NFL teams since the 2010 Patriots not to make a field goal of at least 45 yards in a season.

Tampa Bay has had at least one field goal of 53 yards in each of its past seven seasons. To find a year with a season long as short as 43 yards, you have to go back to 1980 and Garo Yepremian (43). The 1977 Bucs didn't hit one longer than 40.

Aguayo had good range at Florida State, kicking five field goals from 50 yards or longer with a career long of 53. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said he has 100 percent confidence in Aguayo within his range, but extending that range would let him show his value a bit more.

4. Can the Bucs make Dak Prescott lose a fumble?

The Cowboys rookie had just two interceptions before he threw two last week against the Giants.

He has a fumble issue, however, with four lost. Only Chargers QB Philip Rivers (five) has lost more. The Bucs' Jameis Winston has lost four fumbles, but the Cowboys could be worse off — Prescott has fumbled nine times. Only the Eagles' Carson Wentz (12) and the Cardinals' Carson Palmer (14) have more total fumbles than Prescott.

The Bucs are tied for the NFL lead in takeaways (25) and in opponents' fumbles recovered (11), so this is a Dallas vulnerability the Bucs could exploit.

5. Can Cameron Brate take advantage of the spotlight?

Brate is still tied for the NFL lead among tight ends with six touchdowns, two short of Jimmie Giles' Bucs season record for the position.

Could Brate make a case for the Pro Bowl with a strong finish? Carolina's Greg Olsen and Seattle's Jimmy Graham seem like locks. After that, Brate is competing with the likes of Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph and Dallas' Jason Witten. Brate ranks fifth among NFC tight ends in yards, and the Cowboys have given up 79 catches to tight ends, fourth-most in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys-Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Things to watch Sunday night 12/16/16 [Last modified: Saturday, December 17, 2016 8:59pm]
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