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Saturday, December 17, 2011
Beating up on Bucs is good first step

By Jean-Jacques Taylor
ESPNDallas.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Jerry Jones knows the truth, as does Jason Garrett, although he's loathe to admit it publicly.

It clashes, you see, with Garrett's philosophy of living in the moment.

Let me spell it out for you: The playoffs have already started for your Dallas Cowboys.

They entered Saturday night's game against the raggedy Tampa Bay Buccaneers needing a win in each of their last three games to guarantee themselves a playoff berth.

Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson celebrate Bryant's touchdown catch, one of three scoring throws by Tony Romo in the first half.

One down and two to go after the Cowboys beat hapless -- perhaps abject is a better word -- Tampa Bay 31-15 at Raymond James Stadium.

Next up, the hated Philadelphia Eagles.

Surely you remember the 34-7 butt-kicking the Eagles delivered at the end of October, which also happened to be the worst loss in Garrett's 22-game era as coach.

There's no time to focus on revenge this week because the Cowboys have more important things to consider. They just need to find a way to win because they ruined their odds of making the playoffs as a wild-card team with consecutive losses to Arizona and the New York Giants to start December.

It wouldn't matter if Albert Einstein and Pythagoras worked together on a formula to increase the odds of the Cowboys getting into the playoffs without winning the division; it ain't happening.

You're better off finishing up your last-minute Christmas shopping than hoping for that many different scenarios to go Dallas' way.

Listen to your beloved owner. This represents the first time in forever he has a firm grasp on reality.

Clearly, Jerry has smashed his rose-colored glasses to smithereens.

"We gotta get in. We gotta get wins," Jerry said. "The best way to get in is to win this thing."

He's talking about the NFC East.

Beat Philadelphia at home on Christmas Eve and beat the Giants at MetLife Stadium on New Year's Day, and the Cowboys will have 10 wins and their second NFC East title in three years.

You should feel good about the way the Cowboys played Saturday because we've seen them struggle more than once against inferior opponents. The Bucs, losers of seven straight games, certainly fit that criteria.

The Cowboys scored on their first two possessions, grabbing a 14-0 lead. By the time the first half ended, the Cowboys led 28-0 with Tony Romo throwing three touchdown passes and running for another.

In the first half, Dallas outgained the Bucs 217-54. The Cowboys had 14 first downs; Tampa Bay had one.

It was a perfect response to week that began with Garrett and his players explaining how they blew yet another double-digit fourth-quarter lead in a disappointing loss to the Giants, and ended with the shocking news of former Cowboys receiver Sam Hurd being arrested for allegedly trying to buy enough cocaine to establish a drug distribution network in Chicago, where he played for the Bears.

A single Garrett decision on the first possession of the third quarter briefly resuscitated the Bucs. On third-and-19 from the Dallas 11, Garrett called a pass play, which made no sense.

After all, the Cowboys have converted just 10 of 45 third-down plays of 10 yards or more this season (22.2 percent). The NFL average is 19.6 percent.

You don't have to be an NFL coach or player to know the best decision in that situation is run the ball and punt. If you coached a team that blew a 27-3 third-quarter lead earlier this season, it should be an absolute no-brainer.

Well, Adrian Clayborn beat Doug Free and sacked Romo, forcing a fumble that Dekoda Watson returned 7 yards for a touchdown.

"It was a well-protected throw," Garrett said, "but Tony had to move in the pocket. It was one of our bad plays in the game."

All I know is Garrett must stop these game-management gaffes. Quickly.

The Cowboys, as Garrett constantly urges them to do, battled through the adversity and drove for a field goal, pushing the lead to 31-7.

Garrett felt so good about the Cowboys' ability to manage the game and control Tampa's pitiful offense that DeMarcus Ware (neck) and Jay Ratliff (ribs) didn't play in the second half in hopes they'll be healthier against the Eagles.

They would have played if necessary, but the Cowboys survived.

Now, they need one more win to set up a probable winner-take-all season finale against the Giants.

Only Philadelphia stands in their way.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.