ARLINGTON, Texas — Two days before Christmas, the Bucs came to AT&T Stadium Sunday and gifted the Cowboys two touchdowns.
Dallas scored 14 points on a pair of Jameis Winston fumbles and the Bucs lost their final road game of the season 27-20 at Jerry's World. The Bucs have lost seven of their last nine games heading into a season finale that could foreshadow a massive overhaul in the front office and coaching staff at One Buc Place.
The Bucs' formula to winning has been simple. And on most Sundays, when they haven't committed turnovers, Tampa Bay has put itself in good position for victory.
This wasn't one of those days.
Twice against the Cowboys on Sunday, the script of the game turned dramatically on turnovers.
In a one-score game, Winston's second fumble came on an end around handoff to Bobo Wilson with 2:38 left in the third quarter, a peculiar call in itself given all off the Bucs playmakers.
That turnover came after the Bucs stole momentum by scoring a late first-half touchdown that cut the Cowboys' lead to four. The Tampa Bay defense had forced Dallas to settle for a field goal on its previous possession.
But Winston's fumble gave the Cowboys the ball at the Tampa Bay 4-yard line, and Dallas scored two plays later on a four-yard pass from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup.
Trailing 7-3 and with the Bucs driving for that could have been a go-ahead score in the first quarter Winston fumbled on third-and-5 at the Dallas 35-yard line, a hard hit from Randy Gregory jarring the ball loose. Linebacker Jaylon Smith scooped it up and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.
The story of another frustrating Bucs loss on Sunday was the multitude of miscues, with the Tampa Bay offense moving the ball forward only to fall back by penalties.
The Bucs committed seven penalties for 57 yards in the first half, but the greatest example of a lost team was how Tampa Bay was unable to score despite a second-and-1 at the 2-yard line. The Bucs had three opportunities to score —or even get a first down to extend the drive. But a delay of game penalty on third down put the Bucs back to the six and Winston was stopped short of the first-down marker.
Those are the type of ugly sequences that get coaches fired, and they can't help the case for keeping embattled Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter.
The Bucs took momentum going into the half as running back Jaquizz Rodgers scored from two yards out with 20 second left in the half, capping an eight-play, 75-yard drive that took up just 1:23 and pulled the Bucs within four at 17-13.
The key play on that drive was a 24-yard pass to DeSean Jackson, followed by 15 yards on a roughing-the-passer call on the same play.
On their first drive of the game, Winston hit Mike Evans for a 38-yard gain to reach the Cowboys' 13, but the Bucs went backwards on a holding penalty on guard Caleb Benenoch and Tampa Bay had to settle for a 37-yard field goal.
After falling behind 14-3 on Smith's fumble return, the Bucs drove to the Dallas 27, rebounding from a first-and-20 created by a Demar Dotson holding call. But Winston was called for an illegal block in the back on second down, and the Bucs had to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Santos.
Trailing 27-13, the Bucs scored on Winston's seven-yard pass to Mike Evans with 2:05 left in the game, but the Bucs failed an onside kick and the Cowboys ran out the clock.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieintheYard