Cowboys' D heals vs. woeful Bucs

TAMPA, Fla. -- Bravo to the Dallas Cowboys' defense for beating up on a bad offense.

Now it's time to earn their paychecks and a playoff berth.

Coming off a week of heavy, deserved criticism, the Dallas defense did what it was supposed to do in a 31-15 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It made the putrid offense in pewter uniforms look poor, holding the Bucs to one offensive scoring drive and 190 total yards.

It was an especially dominant performance during the half that Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff played before nursing nagging injuries as sideline spectators. Tampa Bay accounted for a grand total of one first down and 55 total yards while falling behind by four touchdowns by halftime.

Take a moment to give the Cowboys a round of applause if you want. Just make it brief and move on real quickly.

That's what the Cowboys are doing. This defense accepts that it won't get much credit for an outstanding performance against an awful team. It will be judged by what happens the next two weeks, when the Cowboys get rematches against NFC East rivals that ran up and down the field on them.

"Let's find out," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "Let's go."

Ryan's bunch was absolutely embarrassed in its previous games against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. Not coincidentally, the Cowboys lost both of those games, which helped put them in a position where they have to win out now to guarantee themselves of playing in the postseason.

The Eagles looked like a team worthy of the preseason hype -- which Ryan infamously mocked -- only once. That was in a 34-7 rout of the Cowboys, when LeSean McCoy ran for 185 yards and two touchdowns and Michael Vick made it look easy attacking the middle of Dallas' soft zone defense.

The Dallas defense looked even worse in last week's 37-34 loss to the Giants, the first time in franchise history the Cowboys allowed a 400-yard passer (Eli Manning), 100-yard receiver (Hakeem Nicks) and 100-yard rusher (Brandon Jacobs) in the same game. Kids talking through tin cans connected with string have better communication than the confused defense that had two major coverage busts that led to big plays and way too many other mental mistakes.

Two games, 71 points and 1,005 total yards allowed. And a ton of motivation fodder for the Dallas defense to chew on for the next couple of weeks.

"To be honest with you, man, you guys make it seem like we're the worst defense in the league the last couple of weeks," linebacker Keith Brooking said with a strong hint of annoyance in his voice. "Obviously, you give up 500 yards against the Giants and probably some of that is deservedly so."

But the Cowboys believe their performance against the Bucs is more indicative of the kind of defense they have than the debacles against the Eagles and Giants.

Ryan has gone on and on about being the best defensive coordinator in the league and having the best defensive talent at his disposal. The players often talk about how they expect to be a dominant defense.

That's what made their worst moments so disappointing. It also reduces the excitement about their effort against the Bucs.

Whoop-dee-do, the Dallas defense made a team with an eight-game losing streak look miserable.

Having properly pooh-poohed that accomplishment, let's point out that the Cowboys needed this kind of performance regardless of the poor level of competition.

"We wasn't us, you know what I mean?" Mike Jenkins said of getting lit up by the Giants last week. "We definitely needed to come in this game and just do this for ourselves."

It's not just that the Cowboys won their individual matchups on a consistent basis. More importantly, the defense didn't look like a bunch of dudes who had just met for the first time in the parking lot during pregame tailgating.

It was a penalty-free, on-the-same-page performance for a defense that had shot itself in the foot far too often during the two-game losing streak before its trip to Tampa.

"I think this was the first step that we need," said Ware, who recorded his 16th sack of the season despite aggravating a stinger on the game's second snap. He rested in the second half in hopes he could be completely healthy for the Eagles' Christmas Eve visit.

Added Brooking: "The difference between tonight and those two or three bad games is the communication was great and we were all on the same page playing together. All 11 guys for the most part were where they needed to be. ... We played smart, we played hard and we played physical. That's winning football defensively. We just have to continue to keep it going."

They've got their work cut out for them. Nobody knows that better than the Cowboys, and the point will be hammered into the defense's heads while watching the horror game film the next two weeks of their two division losses.

As much as head coach Jason Garrett drills the blinders-wearing, be-great-today approach into their heads, the Cowboys' defense couldn't help but to look ahead a little bit while preparing for the Bucs. They've got a lot to prove and a playoff berth to claim against the Eagles and Giants, which is partially why Ware and Ratliff (rib cage strain) rested during the second half.

"We'd like to fight them with a full deck, but whatever we've got to do, we're ready," Ryan said. "We're excited. We want this challenge. These are the two we wanted, so here they come."

Here come the Eagles and Giants. Which Cowboys' defense will show up? Dallas' season depends on that answer.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.