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  1. Bucs

Tom Jones: At least the Bucs matter again

ARLINGTON, Texas — This was the biggest game the Bucs have played. In years.

We, along with Carrie Underwood, waited all day for Sunday night. First place on the line. Prime time. National television.

Michaels and Collinsworth and Costas in the house. The eyes of the country tuned in. The big time.

And the Bucs stood toe-to-toe with a team that very well could hold up the Lombardi Trophy when this season ends. The result — a 26-20 loss to the Cowboys — might have been disappointing for Tampa Bay, but the performance was worthy of your applause.

"We didn't embarrass ourselves," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We're a good team. But we got beat by a good team who played better than we did."

That leads to two questions. What did it mean? And what does it mean for the future?

For the first question. What to make of what we saw Sunday night?

Be proud, Bucs fans. This team showed guts, showed fight, showed passion.

The Bucs spent the first half being pushed up and down the field by Dallas and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. Felt like the defense was on the field for about two weeks.

And quarterback Jameis Winston looked lost.

At the start, the moment was way too big for the second-year signal-caller. He started the game the way he too often starts big games: too amped, too juiced, too inconsistent. He turned the ball over. He committed a dumb penalty. He looked like he belonged back at FSU instead of the big stage and bright lights of Sunday Night Football.

But just when you thought the Bucs were about to be run out of Dallas, the incredible happened. They showed up in the second half.

And arrived.

As a team. As a franchise. As a factor.

The Bucs are relevant again. Just coming back like they did in the second half showed that.

"I'm never going to doubt that these guys are going to play hard and compete," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "That's not an issue. We did fine in those areas."

More than fine. The Bucs were every bit worthy of playing on Sunday Night Football. They made NBC suits look smart for flexing this game into the marquee game of the week. This game was entertaining and competitive.

So are the Bucs.

Remember, they were once 3-5. Koetter's seat was getting toasty. Doubters wondered if Winston was a flop. But now, after what we saw Sunday night, it's fair to say that this team can play with anyone, anywhere. They already won at Kansas City this season. And Atlanta. They beat the Seahawks.

And they sure as heck showed up in Big D Sunday night. With the heart they displayed in front of 93,101 fans inside the swankiest stadium in sports, the Bucs proved they have taken a giant step to respectability.

These are no longer the Bucs of Schiano, no longer the Bucs of Lovie, no longer the Bucs of Raheem.

This is a team to be taken seriously.

"We're a good team and we competed and fought 'til the end," Winston said. "That's always something good to build on."

So that leads us to the second question. Now what?

The playoffs are still very much a possibility for this group, but now comes playing with expectations.

They are supposed to win Christmas Eve in New Orleans. They are supposed to win the season finale at home against Carolina. If you really are a good team, that's what you do. You win those games.

No one expected Tampa Bay to win Sunday night. When you have nothing to lose, there's no pressure in going out and playing free and easy. That's exactly what Tampa Bay did. Trailing at one point 17-3, the Bucs actually held a lead going into the fourth quarter.

They just couldn't hold on, mostly because the offense still hasn't figured out how to finish games and Winston still turns the ball over a tad too much.

The loss hurts, but it didn't end Tampa Bay's season. This game might even be a building block.

"That's hard to judge tonight," Koetter said after the game. "Tonight it just feels like you got your tail kicked by a good football team. We came here with higher expectations, but we got beat by a good football team."

Now the pressure really cranks up. The season comes down to two games to decide whether the season ends on New Year's Day or New Year's Day starts a new season.

The good news: At least these two games matter. At least the Bucs matter.

Sunday night proved it.

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