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Bucs vs. Cowboys Turning Point, Week 15: Witten fumbles, Tampa Bay stumbles

Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander forced his first fumble of the season when he hit Jason Witten after the Cowboys tight end caught a pass in the fourth quarter Sunday night. [Getty Images]
Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander forced his first fumble of the season when he hit Jason Witten after the Cowboys tight end caught a pass in the fourth quarter Sunday night. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 22, 2016

Jason Witten almost never fumbles.

More than 1,000 catches in 14 seasons. Six fumbles.

Then, with 8:38 left in the fourth quarter Sunday night, Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander threw a shoulder into the Cowboys tight end as he caught his 10th pass of the game.

Out popped fumble No. 7.

Finally, Tampa Bay had a takeaway.

It was the game-changing play the Bucs needed. Down 23-20, they were in Cowboys territory. They had a shot. A shot to beat the team with the NFL's best record. What a season this has turned out to be.

They really had no business being in the game at that point. They fell behind by two touchdowns early. They couldn't stop quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. They couldn't protect Jameis Winston or block for Doug Martin. They turned the ball over three times.

Still, Alexander's play wiped all that away. We've seen it over and over this season: You don't need to be good; you just need to be good enough.

You know by now, of course, that the Bucs ultimately weren't good enough and went on to lose 26-20. That's because in their moment to shine — on Sunday Night Football, against America's Team — they wilted.

On first down, the Bucs came to the line with an extra offensive lineman. Cowboys defensive end Benson Mayowa threw that lineman, rookie Leonard Wester, to the ground and tripped up Martin for a 1-yard loss. That was one of 14 first-down plays in which Tampa Bay failed to gain a yard.

The failed run set up second and 11 — perhaps the Bucs' biggest wasted opportunity. When Winston completed a screen pass to Charles Sims to the right side, it was a jump-off-your-couch moment. Not because it was a spectacular catch. But because you saw the space and the blockers in front of the running back.

Tight end Cameron Brate had a man. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus had a man. Receiver Russell Shepard had a man. You imagined Sims dodging tackles and breaking off a big gain like the one in the opener against the Falcons.

The only defender he might have had to beat for a touchdown was the deep safety. At the very least, he had a first down and the Bucs would have been in Roberto Aguayo's field-goal range.

Shepard held his block, Brate didn't and Cherilus completely whiffed. Sims gained 6 yards. A reach-for-your-beer moment.

On the third-and-5 play that never should have been, Winston tried to drop a pass between two defensive backs to Shepard. The throw needed to be perfect. It wasn't.

Punter Bryan Anger has had a remarkable season, but the sight of him on fourth and 5 was enough to make Bucs fans who had been waiting all day for Sunday night feel as though they had been run over like Leonard Wester.

It was like making a wish, sizing up your birthday candles then watching as the annoying kid from across the street obliterates them with a fire extinguisher.

Capitalizing on opportunities such as the Witten fumble — that's what separates the 12-2 teams from the 8-6 teams. When an opponent turns the ball over in its own territory, you must score points. The Cowboys did; the Bucs didn't.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.