For three quarters and then some, the Cowboys-Buccaneers game was devoid of drama.
After a brief exchange of field goals late in the first quarter and into the early part of the second, Dallas and Tampa Bay took turns giving the ball back to each other.
Missed field goal, missed field goal, interception, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt.
It was a beautiful, breezy fall afternoon in Tampa Bay and you were wasting it by watching a couple of players kick an oblong ball as high as they possibly could. If not for the pleasant weather, it would have been excruciating, just barely more tolerable than reading the iTunes terms and conditions.
With less than 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Cowboys leading 6-3, things were starting to look grim for the Bucs. While they were down only three runs, er, points when they took possession at their own 8-yard line, their win probability stood at less than 30 percent. The Tampa Bay offense had gained less than 4.2 yards per play and had yet to reach the red zone. The Cowboys were in position to snap their six-game losing streak and win a game without Tony Romo for the first time since 2010.
But this being Dallas, a storyline can shift in an instant. The Cowboys, after all, are the NFL's most compelling soap opera, whether or not they're contenders. Hit the music.
During an injury timeout that followed Doug Martin gains of 2 and 10 yards, Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy — who was placed on the NFL commissioner's exempt list for 15 games last season and was suspended for four games this season when his ex-girlfriend accused him of assault — took off his helmet and began yelling toward Bucs fans in the south end zone who were chanting "Hardy s----." Perhaps that's the kind of onfield leadership Jerry Jones was looking for when he signed him in March?
Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith saw the display but said he didn't think Hardy was taunting the crowd.
"He was just fired up," Smith said. "I mean, when you have a ton of Dallas Cowboys fans, you're giving him the chance to fire up the crowd. He was just playing football to me."
On the next play, Hardy fell — or, as his attorney might say, "tripped over a scale" — and Jameis Winston lobbed a screen pass over him to Martin, who slipped a couple of tackles and picked up 25 yards.
The Bucs offense then marched to the Dallas 23-yard line, where Winston threw his second interception of the game — a pass that deflected off receiver Adam Humphries' hand and into the arms of safety Jeff Heath, who also picked off a tipped Winston pass in the second quarter.
At the least, the interception cost the Bucs a shot at tying the score. But the 69-yard drive, Tampa Bay's longest of the game, also flipped the field and put the struggling Cowboys offense at their own 9-yard line.
The Bucs dropped Darren McFadden at the 2-yard line on first down, but a 16-yard completion to Terrance Williams set up third-and-1. Before Sunday, Tampa Bay had prevented just two of eight such conversions.
The Cowboys lined up in the shotgun and in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). The tight end — Jason Witten — and two receivers were lined up to the right of the offensive line. Dez Bryant was lined up out wide to the left. The Bucs put one safety deep and seven defenders in the box, which left each receiver one-on-one with a defensive back.
By overloading one side of the field, the Cowboys were trying to isolate Bryant against one defender. They got the look they wanted, but Bryant dropped the pass. The Cowboys punted, giving the Bucs one more shot and Winston a shot at redemption.
It took 58 minutes, but the Bucs finally reached the red zone when Winston hit tight end Brandon Myers for a 17-yard gain, which lifted Tampa Bay's chances of winning from 50.7 percent to 61.9 percent. It was a better catch than throw, as Myers had to reach back for the pass. Led by left tackle Donovan Smith's stonewalling of Hardy, the offensive line held up well initially, but a late blitzer might have rushed Winston's delivery.
Three plays later, the Bucs were inside the Dallas 5-yard line and seeking more than a game-tying field goal. On second-and-goal, Winston might have had fullback Jorvorskie Lane open in the right flat but with linebacker Anthony Hitchens closing in quickly, he looked toward Evans running across the end zone and ultimately threw it away.
On third-and-goal, Hardy beat Smith around the edge and flushed Winston out of the pocket. That's when Winston borrowed from the John Elway book of improvisation.
As Winston leapt into the end zone, however, he lost control of the ball, and the Cowboys recovered. But a defensive holding penalty on Jeff Heath — the safety who intercepted Winston twice — gave the Bucs a chance to rewrite the finish.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter completely fooled the Cowboys defense on the next play when he called for Winston to fake the handoff to Martin and run a bootleg to the right. Every defender bit hard on the action to the left, clearing the way for the rookie quarterback to score the first touchdown of the game and give the Bucs a 10-6 lead with 54 seconds left.
"The touchdown was magical, man," Winston said. "Had a great fake, a great call, found the way into the end zone. The play before that I have no recollection."
The Bucs needed one more big play to close out the first fourth-quarter comeback of Winston's pro career…
McDougald's birthday pick
An unnecessary roughness penalty on the ensuing kickoff and an 11-yard pass took the Cowboys to the Tampa Bay 45-yard line with 28 seconds left. As it did on the third-and-1 play, Dallas lined up with Bryant as the lone receiver to Matt Cassel's left and three receivers to his right. The Bucs were in zone coverage this time with two safeties deep — Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte.
Bryant ran a fly route through the Bucs' zone coverage and was one-on-one with McDougald in the end zone. The safety gave Bryant a slight shove and came away with the pick.
"It's my ball or no ball at all," said McDougald, who celebrated his 25th birthday Sunday. "That's the mentality defensive backs need to have. When the ball's in the air, you're either going to make the play on the ball or the receiver's not going to make the play on the ball."
The interception secured the Bucs' fourth win of the season, twice as many as they had in 2014, and extended the Cowboys' losing streak to seven games, their longest losing streak since 1989, when Troy Aikman was a rookie. How 'bout that ending?
Thomas Bassinger can be reached at [email protected]om. Follow @tometrics.