TAMPA — You kept waiting for the collapse. Any minute now.
You kept waiting for the breakdown. The next drive, for sure.
You just had that feeling that the Bucs defense was going to cave in at some point Sunday because that's what it always does. It caves in on Sundays.
The defense that is designed to bend but not break eventually bends. Then breaks. Not only does it break, it snaps into smithereens, and a perfectly good victory falls apart with it. That's just what this Bucs defense does.
But, on Sunday, you kept waiting and waiting. And the crash never happened.
Wait, what? Come again?
Yep, this is a game the defense was supposed to lose, a victory that it was supposed to gift wrap and hand over to the Cowboys.
"They just kept answering the bell," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said.
Time to give the defense a little credit. Hey, it's only fair. After being kicked around, criticized and ridiculed — and deservedly so — for much of this season, Tampa Bay's defense was the main ingredient in the Bucs' 10-6 victory against the Cowboys.
"The team won the game," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We just did our part."
It did more than that.
It held the Cowboys to a mere 216 yards of total offense. It stuffed Dallas' run game, holding Darren McFadden to 32 yards rushing and the Cowboys to 42. It shut down star receiver Dez Bryant, limiting him to five catches on 12 targets for 45 yards. It had three sacks.
The most impressive numbers of all, however, were six and zero — as in six points and no touchdowns allowed.
The oft-maligned defense won the game, and that had to hold some sweet redemption for the defensive-minded Smith.
"As far as the defense being criticized, when you don't play as well as you need to, the criticism (comes)," Smith said.
Still, wasn't Lovie proud?
"Of course, that goes without saying," he said. "It's what we expected. We have good players who continue to work on improvements that they need to make, and we should see these kind of results."
Okay, at some point it should be pointed out that the Cowboys offense without injured quarterback Tony Romo runs like a jalopy. Seriously, it's awful. Sunday, curious play-calling, no imagination, no running game and the expected pedestrian play from backup quarterback Matt Cassel helped the Bucs a-plenty.
Then again, this is a defense that has been torched by the likes of Kirk Cousins, Brian Hoyer and Marcus Mariota when he was playing his first NFL game. So don't think the Bucs are going to toss back or apologize for this victory against Cassel and a Cowboys team that has now lost seven in a row.
"Hey," linebacker Lavonte David said, "right now, it's just a pretty good feeling."
The Bucs defense was solid throughout, but no stops were bigger than on Dallas' final two drives.
Down 6-3, the defense took the field with only 5:42 left after Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston threw an interception deep in Dallas territory. Faced with the possibility of Dallas running out the clock and the game, the Bucs forced a three-and-out.
Then, after Winston's 1-yard TD run gave Tampa Bay a 10-6 lead, Dallas took over at its 44 with 43 seconds left.
"We've been in that situation too many times," David said. "This time, someone stepped up."
That someone was safety Bradley McDougald, who ended Dallas' comeback by intercepting Cassel in the end zone with 14 seconds left.
"We needed to make a play," Smith said. "That wasn't a turnover. That was a takeaway. Great interception."
That wrapped up one heck of an ugly win.
"I've never seen an ugly win," Smith said, smiling.
So what would he call it?
"Buc ball, that's what it's about," Smith said. "Finding a way at the end."
They did find a way. Winston played like he did in college. He threw a couple of interceptions but made the big plays when he needed to. The running game pounded out just enough yards. Then the defense, led by impressive play from cornerbacks Sterling Moore, who shutdown former teammate Bryant, and Jude Adjei-Barimah, stifled the Cowboys.
"We believe in what we're doing," Smith said. "We haven't been Pro Bowl ready as quick as everyone would like, but it takes time. … If we keep doing things the right way, eventually we're going to have some results. We're not there yet, but we're making progress."
The Bucs now have won twice as many games as they did a season ago. They are 4-5, and in a parity-filled NFC that means they are sniffing around the playoff pack. Regardless of the opponent, games like Sunday's do show improvement and provide optimism.
"Just validates that we're making progress," Smith said. "We're not the same old Bucs."
And it wasn't the same old Bucs defense. At least for a day.