Tony Romo was nearly flawless in getting the Dallas Cowboys back on track in the NFC East.
Romo threw for three touchdowns and ran for a fourth score Saturday night, helping the first-place Cowboys beat the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-15.
Dallas stopped a two-game losing streak in which it blew fourth-quarter leads to allow a seemingly solid grip on the division lead slip away.
The victory gave the Cowboys (8-6) a half-game lead over New York. Although the Giants hold a tiebreaker advantage after beating Dallas 37-34 last week, the Cowboys can claim the division title and host a playoff game by finishing with wins the next two weeks over Philadelphia at home and the Giants on the road.
The Bucs (4-10) lost for the eighth straight time and played a miserable first half that certainly didn’t do anything to help coach Raheem Morris make a case for keeping his job.
Romo threw a pair of 8-yard TD passes to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant in the first quarter, then finished a seven-play, 89-yard drive with a 9-yarder to Laurent Robinson to make it 21-0 with just under 5 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Romo made it 28-0 on a quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the opening half.
Tampa Bay managed just one first down and was outgained 279 yards to 55 in the first two quarters, but found a way to make it interesting in the second half.
The Bucs, who had had yielded 69 consecutive points dating to the second quarter of the previous week’s 41-14 loss to Jacksonville, finally got on the scoreboard in the third quarter when rookie Adrian Clayborn sacked Romo from behind, forcing a fumble that linebacker Dekoda Watson returned 4 yards for a TD for a much-needed spark.
Josh Freeman’s 13-yard TD pass to Dezmon Briscoe and a two-point conversion throw to Kellen Winslow trimmed the Dallas lead to 31-15 heading into the final quarter.
The Cowboys have led in the fourth quarter in five of their six losses, however there wouldn’t be a late collapse this time. Tampa Bay turned the ball over on downs twice in the last six minutes, and Sammy Morris picked up a first down inside the Bucs 10 to give the Cowboys an opportunity to run out the clock.
Austin’s TD midway through the first quarter was set up by Tampa Bay’s NFL-leading 32nd turnover, a fumble by Freeman on the fifth play of the game.
The Tampa Bay quarterback scrambled 25 yards on third-and-5 to march the Bucs near midfield, but the opening possession of the night came to an abrupt halt on the next play when Freeman took off again for a 7-yard gain and was stripped of the ball at the Cowboys 44.
Linebacker Bradie James recovered and it took Romo seven plays to get Dallas in the end zone for the first time. The Cowboys marched 69 yards in 10 plays on their next possession, with Romo finishing the drive by finding a wide-open Bryant in the back of the end zone to make it 14-0.
In three career games against Tampa Bay – all lopsided victories – Romo has thrown for 908 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. He was 23 of 30 for 249 yards and was sacked twice Saturday night.
Felix Jones, back in the starting lineup after DeMarco Murray broke his right ankle last week in a 37-34 loss to the Giants, broke a 38-yard run on the drive leading to Robinson’s TD and finished with 108 yards on 22 carries – his second straight 100-yard performance had 67 yards rushing on 12 carries at halftime.
Freeman, making his second start since missing a game because of an injured throwing shoulder, was 17 of 27 for 148 yards and no interceptions. He led the Bucs in rushing with 37 yards on four attempts and was sacked three times, once by DeMarcus Ware, who notched his 16th of the season.
Thanks to a large contingent of Cowboys fans, the Bucs played before a sellout crowd at home for just the second time in two seasons. Judging by all the blue and white jerseys scattered throughout the 65,000-seat stadium, at least half the house appeared to be rooting for Dallas.
The Bucs have lost eight straight following a 4-2 start that included wins over NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta. The skid has coach Raheem Morris on the hot seat just a year after the NFL’s youngest head coach led his team to a surprising 10-6 finish that heightened expectations coming into this season.
Tampa Bay played Saturday night without starting receiver Arrelious Benn, who suffered a concussion during last week’s loss at Jacksonville. He was replaced by Briscoe, who began the night with just 23 receptions yet shared the team lead in touchdown catches with three.
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