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Key penalties, turnovers cost Bucs in 27-20 loss to Dallas

December 23, 2018
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Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) recovers a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fumble and returns it for a touchdown as offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) gives chase in the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — The big plays were there for Tampa Bay and its top-five offense on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. So were plenty of penalty flags and fumbles.

The result: Another prolific offensive performance, and another Buccaneers loss.

The Cowboys (9-6) clinched the NFC East with a 27-20 win over Tampa Bay, capitalizing on two critical Buccaneers turnovers and 85 yards rushing from Ezekiel Elliott. Dak Prescott completed 20-of-25 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for another score.

Anytime the Buccaneers (5-10) seemed to generate momentum, they were derailed by a flag or turnover.

The costliest play came late in the first quarter, when Jameis Winston escaped pressure only to be caught from behind and strip-sacked by Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory. Dallas linebacker Jaylon Smith scooped up the ball and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.

It was Winston’s first fumble since returning to the starting lineup in Week 12 against San Francisco.

“Yeah, that just can’t happen,” Winston said. “That’s the bottom line. It can’t happen.”

A series in the third quarter epitomized the Buccaneers’ day. A 33-yard run by Peyton Barber was nullified because of a holding penalty on tight end Antony Auclair. On the next play, a botched handoff from Winston to wide receiver Bobo Wilson was recovered by Gregory at the Tampa Bay 4.

The Cowboys scored two plays later to take a 27-13 lead.

“Two huge plays in that game really swung it,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said. “We’re moving it, going in to possibly score, then fumble and they take it all the way back. And then we fumbled on the handoff (to Wilson), and they get the ball on the goal line. That’s a 14- to 17-point swing right there.”

Turnovers were only part of the story. Tampa Bay also committed nine penalties for 72 yards, many of them at crucial moments.

On the opening possession, wideout Mike Evans beat Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones deep down the left sideline for a 38-yard completion, putting the Bucs in scoring position. But one play later, center Caleb Benenoch was flagged for holding, and Tampa Bay had to settle for Cairo Santos’ field goal.

On the Cowboys’ subsequent drive, defensive tackle Vita Vea sacked Prescott for a 10-yard loss but was flagged for a facemask, setting up first down from the 7. Prescott rushed for a touchdown on the next play.

“We moved the ball consistently all day, and penalties put us in a bind sometimes,” Koetter said. “We overcame some of them. It’s frustrating to move the ball like that and not get touchdowns. Against good teams, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Winston hobbled a Bucs first-half drive on a rare block-in-the-back call against the quarterback. And in the 4th quarter, facing a 4th-and-1 from the Dallas 2, Winston lost track of time and Tampa Bay was flagged for delay of game.

“I thought we were going to get the ball snapped,” Koetter said. “We didn’t do a good job there.”

Winston scrambled for 5 yards on the next play, stretching just short of the first down and turning the ball back over to Dallas.

“I don’t know what happened with the clock,” Winston said. “I just have to call it faster and get the ball out. I’ve got to do a better job with operations.”

Winston finished 34 of 48 for 336 yards and a touchdown, surpassing Ryan Fitzpatrick in the first half for passing yards for the season. Tampa Bay gained just 63 yards on 24 carries. The team’s longest run went for just 8 yards.

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