Five things to watch in Bucs-Cowboys on Sunday night

Published Dec. 17, 2016

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

The Bucs bring a five-game winning streak to Dallas -- if the Lions lose on Sunday afternoon, it 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 is the only team in the NFL to rank among the league's 10 best offenses and 10 best defenses on third down.

The Bucs' defense ranks second on third downs, only allowing a 34 percent success rate, and the offense ranks sixth, convering 44 percent.

This is a problem spot for Dallas, as in their last two games, the Cowboys offense is 2-for-24 on third downs -- that's 8 percent. They went 1-for-15 in a loss to the Giants last weekend, and 1-for-9 in a rough win against the Vikings.

The Bucs defense was especially good on third-and-short in the win against New Orleans -- 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 would help in time of possession, where Dallas ranks second in the league and Tampa Bay is fourth. Win the clock this weekend, you might win the game.

2. Can the Bucs defense get a fourth-quarter interception? They've been magical with them lately -- Chris Conte against the Chiefs, Bradley McDougald against the Seahawks, Keith Tandy against the Chargers and Brent Grimes and Tandy against the Saints.

That's five in the last four games, but here's the catch: Dallas hasn't thrown a fourth-quarter interception all season, joining the Patriots as the only teams without one. The Bucs, to their credit, have only two all year -- one Jameis Winston's harmless Hail Mary on the final play at Arizona, the other against Seattle's Kam Chancellor.

Dallas' defense doesn't get many INTs -- just five, with only the Jaguars (3) having less this season. 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? With three games left in his rookie year, the longest field goal he's made is from 43 yards, going 0-for-4 on any longer attempts.

The Bucs and Dolphins (whose long is from 41) could be the NFL's first teams since the 2010 Patriots to not make a single field goal of at least 45 yards in an entire season.

Tampa Bay has had at least one field goal of 53 yards in each of the last 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.

It's odd, because 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, even by a few yards, would let him show his value a bit more.

4. Can the Bucs make Dak Prescott lose a fumble? The Cowboys' rookie quarterback has deserved praise for limiting his interceptions -- just two all season before he threw two in last week's loss to the Giants.

He has a fumble issue, however, with four lost this season, topped only by the five from Chargers QB Philip Rivers. Winston also has lost four fumbles this season, but the Cowboys could be worse off -- Prescott has fumbled nine times, but Dallas has been fortunate to recover five of them. Only the Eagles' Carson Wentz (12) and the Cardinals' Carson Palmer (14) have more total fumbles than Prescott.

The Bucs are not only tied for the NFL lead in takeaways with 25, they're tied for the league lead with 11 opposing fumbles recovered, so this is a vulnerability the Bucs could exploit against the Cowboys.

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' team 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 Grahama seem like locks, but after that, he's competing with the likes of Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph and Dallas' Jason Witten. Brate ranks fifth in the NFC in yards by tight ends, and the Cowboys' defense has given up 79 catches to tight ends this year, fourth-highest in the NFL.