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Dallas Cowboys-Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Winston roller-coaster ride gets rough

Tight end Cameron Brate makes a third-quarter touchdown catch, taking Cowboys safety Byron Jones into the end zone with him, to give the Bucs a 20-17 lead.
Tight end Cameron Brate makes a third-quarter touchdown catch, taking Cowboys safety Byron Jones into the end zone with him, to give the Bucs a 20-17 lead.
Published Dec. 19, 2016

ARLINGTON, Texas — He lost a fumble. He threw three interceptions. For goodness sakes, he head-butted a linebacker, drawing a penalty on second and goal and likely costing his team a touchdown. He is a candidate for emotional protocol.

Buckle up, Bucs fans, because this is what you get with Jameis Winston. Every game he takes you on a carnival ride to rival anything you will find at Busch Gardens.

That's basically what happened in Sunday night's 26-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Winston played terrible. Then he played great, rallying the Bucs with two touchdown passes in the third quarter to give his team a 20-17 lead. Then he threw an interception that set up a go-ahead field goal by Dan Bailey, who kicked four.

In the end, the down-up-down performance couldn't match that of the Cowboys' sensational rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who completed 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards (88 percent) while running for a score and got 159 yards rushing and a touchdown from Ezekiel Elliott.

"We saw the streaky side a little bit of Jameis,'' Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "We got off to a slow start and that whole first half, even though we got a good drive and got that early lead, against a team like this you can't kick field goals and expect to win.

"The flip side is what Jameis was able to do when we got some rhythm going in the third quarter. That's a plus, that shows you what we're capable of doing when we're firing. He got hot and we came back.''

It's hard to believe that the week was spent in Dallas debating whether Prescott should be replaced by veteran Tony Romo.

The only thing left to decide is whether he or Elliott should win the MVP and/or Rookie of the Year. Elliott had one more incompletion than Winston had interceptions (3).

Say this about the Bucs: they didn't embarrass themselves. The stage was big. Sunday Night Football. America's Team. An announced crowd of 93,101 at AT&T Stadium.

"We already know we can play with anyone,'' tight end Cameron Brate said. "We just thought this would be a good opportunity to kind of show America what the Bucs are all about. We played hard, just didn't come up with enough plays at the end.''

Winston started the game 1-for-5 as the Bucs only had the football for nine minutes in the first half. But trailing by two touchdowns in the second half against the Dallas Cowboys, he got white hot and gave the Bucs a 20-17 lead with touchdown passes to Adam Humphries and Brate in the third quarter.

"We just were executing and taking care of the football for the most part,'' Winston said. "You take care of the football, we're a hard team to stop.

"The positive thing is we competed. They're a good team. We fought to the end and that's something to build off of.''

The Bucs missed a good opportunity Sunday. Not only did they snap a five-game winning streak, but at 8-6 they fell a game behind the Falcons (9-5) in the NFC South and lost their status as the final NFC wild-card team. It will likely take wins on Christmas Eve Saturday at New Orleans, then against Carolina on New Year's Day to have a shot at the postseason.

Koetter is right. The Bucs had their chances. Trailing by a field goal, they recovered a fumble at the Dallas 45 with 6:55 remaining in the game. But Winston was unable to make a first down, let alone get the football in field goal range.

During the five-game winning streak, Winston had protected the football. Not Sunday night.

"He got his arm hit on the fumble,'' Koetter said. "They blitzed, we picked it up relatively well, but one guy got free and hit his arm. On the penalty, Jameis let his emotions get the most of him. That can't happen. He did a great job in the third quarter though getting us back in. We couldn't get anything going in the end.''

Winston didn't try to duck his responsibility for the penalty, which occurred on second-and-goal from the Dallas 8-yard line when Doug Martin was thrown for a 5-yard loss. Winston head-butted Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant in the back.

"Just fighting for my teammate, man,'' Winston said. "Doug, he runs hard for us all the time. The guy threw him to the ground late. I'm out there competing. Passion versus emotion. I can't do that. It hurt us.''

In the end, the Cowboys have the best record in the NFL at 12-2 and are a better team. Prescott has better players around him, including Elliott. He didn't lose his poise. The Bucs and Winston got too caught up in the noise.

"He definitely won the turnover battle against me tonight,'' Winston said of Prescott. "So that's how you win games.''