CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Win over Buccaneers gives Cowboys plenty of confidence to reach playoffs

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Over the past five days, the head coach's ability was debated, the quarterback's supposed reputation of not being able to win games bubbled to the surface again and the biggest question of all was asked a lot:

Is the star still relevant -- the Dallas Cowboys star?

After blowing two fourth-quarter leads the past two weeks, going from a team atop the NFC East to one scraping to get there, the Cowboys seemed headed back to a place they've come to know well over the past decade or so: The island of misfit teams, those talented teams that somehow fall short.

It's funny, though, how one game can change the perception faster than a hungry trucker can chow down a big, thick Texas steak.

The 8-6 Cowboys didn't really need to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Saturday night to have a chance to make the playoffs. If they lost and won their final two games, against the Eagles and the Giants, they would have still won the NFC East since they were tied with the Giants at 9-7 and hold the tiebreaker.

But they needed to show something, anything, just to get the doubts out of their minds, and the sting of the past two weeks lessoned. Let's just say the star was dimming.

This wasn't about getting a victory. This was about being able to flex their muscles and show they had some mental toughness.

They did that with 30 impressive minutes of football -- their best half of the season -- as they rolled to a 31-15 victory Saturday night. Dallas jumped to a 28-0 first-half lead, a half where even the most ardent Cowboys bashers couldn't find any faults.

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Everything went right and for a week the vultures will be kept away. And you know they were circling this carcass after the Giants rallied from 12 down to beat the Cowboys in their building last Sunday night.

"We could care less about the vultures, the naysayers, the people who don't believe in us," Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said. "We obviously hear that. It's hard not to in that city. It's not about them. It's about what we do. We made a big step tonight. I think when you've slid that way two weeks in a row, you can go one way or another. You could have a lack of confidence or a lack of self-esteem. Morale is down. It's a game of being in the right mindset. It shows our character, our resolve, how persistent we are."

Tony Romo -- the maligned quarterback who gets picked apart as much as any good quarterback in the game -- threw three touchdown passes in a first half that looked like he was playing a game of pitch-and-catch with his receivers.

The defense -- which had fallen apart in the fourth quarter the past two weeks -- giving fodder to those wondering if coordinator Rob Ryan is as good as he thinks he is, actually looked dominant, giving up seven first downs for the game.

CBSSports.com Grades
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys
A-
The Cowboys bounced back from two straight losses and put on a clinic against the outmanned Bucs in the first half, dominating both sides of the ball for a 28-point lead. QB Tony Romo was as sharp as heís been all year and that is saying something considering heís having a Pro Bowl-type season. But he picked apart the Bucs and scored four first-half TDs. The defense didnít allow more than one first down in the first half. The second half was more like a cruise control and the Bucs were able to make it respectable. But when it was time to put them away, the Cowboys were able to do that, and stay alive in the playoff picture.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
D-
Tampa got off to another slow start, falling behind 28-0 and gaining just one first down by halftime. The Bucs never established a running game, gaining 58 total yards, including a paltry 21 on nine carries by LeGarrette Blount. The Bucs also finished with 190 total offensive yards. Defensively, Tampa was no better allowing Dallas 399 total yards, including 160 on the ground against a couple of average backs.
By Scott Purks
RapidReports Correspondent

And coach Jason Garrett wasn't the coach in this game with a searing backside. That belonged to Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, whose team lost for the eighth consecutive time and has many speculating on whether Morris will make it through the season.

This was the Cowboys' night. And they so badly needed it, even if it didn't really mean much if they lost.

No, actually, this meant more than just a victory in the standings. It meant this team had the mettle.

"Coming off the two losses, you have to look at this as a win right here that we needed," Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "But it's just a win. I've already forgotten about it."

The Cowboys finished with 28 first downs to seven for the Bucs, had 389 yards to 190 for the Bucs and that's after basically shutting it down in the second half. The Cowboys led 28-0 at the half with 17 first downs to one for Tampa Bay.

Romo, who missed a big throw late last week that would have sealed the Giants game, bounced back with an impressive first half. He was 18 of 22 for 189 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 142.0. He only threw eight passes in the second half when the Cowboys throttled down.

"Tony is playing well," Garrett said. "I think he's seeing the field very well. He's throwing the ball well from the pocket and when things break down, his eyes are up and he's making a lot of plays on the move. I think he's got a real command of what we're trying to do on offense."

If the Cowboys are going to win the NFC East, which would mean beating the Giants the final week of the season, it will be on Romo's right arm. But it helped that Felix Jones had 108 yards on 22 carries against the Bucs. That's significant since DeMarco Murray, the rookie starter, was lost last week for the season with a broken ankle.

The Cowboys led in the fourth quarter of five of their six losses. The last two collapses have been truly stinging, setting off panic in Dallas.

"We really needed to get back on track," Romo said. "Really, the playoffs have started for us, and that's the way we approached it."

The thing is, that wasn't a playoff team on the other side. It was a team in the middle of a dreadful season. It's also a team some say has quit. Even the Cowboys players acknowledged afterward that the Bucs weren't a top-tier team, but that also could have made it easy for Dallas to get caught looking ahead, which they didn't do.

As it is now, those shots they took the past two weeks weren't kill shots, but more like tranquilizer darts.

They were stunned, on their backs even, which is why the vultures were circling.

Only they're still alive, and that first half shows the star still matters -- for now. If they play like they did for the first 30 minutes the next two weeks, they will be a playoff team, and maybe even more.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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