The Dallas Cowboys (7-6) suffered a major setback last week in a loss to NFC East rivals the New York Giants, and will likely face another tough challenge to their playoff hopes this weekend on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9), as they’ll be without their starting rusher DeMarco Murray available for a special NFL treat for sports fans on Saturday night. With both teams struggling to find form after significant losing streaks, it’s a chance for Dallas to regain their footing in the playoff picture with a win after three consecutive losses, and for Tampa Bay, it’s simply a chance to save some face on a season that has gotten away from them and play spoiler, with the Bucs reeling from 7 straight losing performances.
Dallas has been under-performing all season given the general level of talent present on both sides of the football, and they’ve picked the worst time to fall off form with only 3 games remaining in the regular season. Though Dallas maintains a tie for first place in the NFC East with the New York Giants, the Cowboys come into Saturday’s match-up on the back of their second straight bumbled game, in which mistakes on defense and a failure to close out in the final minutes cost them dearly. This has been a reoccurring theme for Dallas this season; the inability to play 4 full quarters of football, despite dominating opponents in the early goings, has Dallas fighting for playoff survival, and heading into tonight’s match-up without DeMarco Murray is just what Dallas doesn’t need in their pursuit to right a sinking ship. Murray (161 carries, 897 yards, 2 TDs) had been a lone bright spot in the Dallas backfield after a couple years of frustrating performances from Marion Barber and Felix Jones, but after getting sidelined with a broken ankle early in the game against New York, Dallas has had to turn back to Felix Jones for Saturday’s contest, hoping that the injury-prone Jones doesn’t suffer a similar fate to leave the Cowboys with only the newly-signed Sammy Morris in the backfield. Fortunate for Dallas however, Jones’ game has certainly improved of late, evident in the 16 carry, 106 yard effort he put up against New York after Murray went out last weekend, and Dallas should get respite from the fact that they will be facing Tampa’s atrocious defense, which ranks 29th in the NFL and is allowing almost 140 yards per game on the ground.
Also lucky for a Dallas team in need of a bounce back game is the fact that Tampa Bay is playing some of the worst all-around football we’ve seen from any team this season. Losing 7 straight games after starting a promising 4-2, the Bucs have simply been unable to stop teams from putting up big numbers against them, and haven’t gotten any help from the sudden drop-off in form suffered by quarterback Josh Freeman this season. After having a fairytale season last year throwing for 25 TDs with just 6 INTs, Freeman has fallen off the wagon throwing an NFL-high 18 interceptions this campaign, while only generating 12 touchdowns via the air. Although Freeman should be excited to throw against a Dallas pass defense that is ranked 24th in the league and surrendered a massive 510 yards of total offense including 400 yards to Eli Manning and the New York Giants, mistakes made by the young QB have proved to be one of the undoing factors in Bucs games during their losing skid, as is evident in the fact that Freeman has thrown 8 picks in the last 4 weeks of play alone. In order for Tampa Bay to turn the corner on their recent losses, it has to start with keeping the Tampa Bay offense on the field for as long as possible, and getting both the passing game and running games working in tandem without making critical mistakes will be key for them to avoid a catastrophic 8th straight loss.
Tampa’s defense certainly isn’t helping the Bucs cause this year especially as they’ve allowed the most points of any defense in the NFL this season, giving up an average of 28 points per outing and 370 points overall. That bodes well for Dallas’ prospects ahead, especially with Tony Romo (3646 yards, 26 TDs, 9 INTs, 100.6 passer rating) playing some of his best football of the season while utilizing a very talented group of receivers that has gotten a boost with Miles Austin back in the line-up. With 4 top-tier receivers under his command, Romo has a nice choice of targets in the passing game, from the sure-handed veteran tight end Jason Witten (leading the team with 64 catches, and has 772 receiving yards and 5 TDs), to deep threats Dez Bryant (47 catches, 756 yards, 8 TDS) and Laurent Robinson (46 catches, 763 yards, 8 TDs), and the aforementioned Austin (32 catches, 466 yards, 5 TDs). Any fantasy owners with Dallas receivers in their line-up will undoubtedly be licking their chops at this match-up against a Tampa defense that is vulnerable especially when in man-to-man coverage, and if Felix Jones can continue his strong recent efforts in the ground game (averaging 6.6 yards/carry this season), the field will open up very nicely for Dallas receivers to have a collection of big days. Even if Dallas finds themselves ahead in this game, Dallas is a pass-first offense, as indicated by the 463 pass/332 rush breakdown this season. While we expect to see Dallas put more of a load on Jones against a terrible Tampa rush defense, you can also expect Tony Romo to be throwing downfield into shoddy coverage all day long…especially considering the fact that (hopefully) Dallas has learned they can’t take their foot off the gas late in games anymore.
Although Tampa Bay is out of the playoff picture this year, this scrappy team led by a scrappy head coach in Raheem Morris will undoubtedly be looking to play spoiler tonight at home, and that starts with finding a way to grind out their running game behind LeGarrette Blount (167 carries, 737 yards, 5 TDs). Tampa hasn’t been able to utilize the run with much effectiveness this season, playing from behind in most contests, which is especially disappointing if you’ve seen what Blount can do once he breaks past the line of scrimmage. A hard-nosed, hard-to-tackle runner, Blount needs to be involved from the get-go if the Bucs are to win against a high-powered offense like Dallas’, and keeping his hands on the ball is key; Since being in the NFL, no running back has coughed up the ball more than LeGarrette Blount has (9, losing 6), and he’s been fumble-prone recently with 4 drops in 3 games resulting in 3 turnovers. Tampa simply can’t afford to turn over the ball while on offense against Dallas, whether it’s due to a Blount drop or a Freeman interception, and they’ll need to step above the call of duty against a very good Dallas defensive front that is only allowing 101 yards per game (8th in the league). While focus is on Blount to help keep the Tampa offense on the field, Freeman also has to better utilize his receivers and look to strike deep to Mike Williams and company to bring the scoring up against a Dallas team that won’t have issues scoring against the Bucs.
Betting Lines for Dallas vs. Tampa Bay
Intertops Sportsbook has our bets today, being one of the best online sports betting sites we’ve reviewed here over the years, and looking over the betting lines for Tampa Bay vs. Dallas, we find the visiting Cowboys to be a hefty -340 favorite in this road match-up against the struggling Tampa Bay defense. However, in a game that could turn into a spoiler with Tampa badly needing a win, a hedge on Tampa with solid +275 odds as underdog isn’t such a bad wager, especially when you consider Dallas’ ability to throw games away without help. Against the spread, 7 points go to Tampa as the underdog at -110 odds, and Dallas will need to make up a touchdown for spread pickers on this game, which would be the better wager of the two if the game stopped at the 3rd quarter. However, with Tampa needing to find a win to save some face and getting a chance against a Dallas team on the ropes, I like the Bucs chances of keeping this game close, provided their offense can have success in both the running and passing games. With plenty on the line for both squads, the over/under starts to look really good with two poorly performing pass defenses in play, and with Tampa Bay prone to giving up tons of points, we like the game going over 47 as the 4th quarter gets loose scoring-wise.
Our Pick to Win:
While Tampa Bay is set up as a good pick for an underdog wager, their lack of defense is far too concerning to take the Bucs to win outright, especially with Dallas so much more focused on their playoff hopes and not failing (again) down the stretch. Dallas’ receiving threats will simply be too much for Tampa Bay to contend with or match on offense, and on another fine outing from Tony Romo, Dallas gets our pick to win on the road at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, beating the Bucs for the 4th straight time. Bottom line, Dallas 37, Tampa Bay 24.