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Special teams, red zone woes ruin Prescott's triumphant return for Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys gave one heck of an effort against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it wasn’t enough as the team fell 31-29 on opening night.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) calls a play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

TAMPA, Fla. — The Dallas Cowboys nearly dethroned the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL’s season opener

The Dallas Cowboys gave one heck of an effort against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it wasn’t enough as the team fell 31-29 on opening night in the NFL. A late field goal by Tampa Bay kicker Ryan Succop ended the feel-good story of Dak Prescott’s heroic performance in his return from last season’s season-ending gruesome ankle injury.

The Thursday night contest played out as one of the more memorable opening night games in league history. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the officials played an ugly role in the final once again. Last season, Dallas WR Michael Gallup was called for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty that cost the team a chance at winning Week 1 in Los Angeles. 

In this contest, the roles were reversed, and the Cowboys didn’t get the benefit of the call. With just 24 seconds left in the game and the Buccaneers on the Dallas 42-yard line, Tom Brady threw to receiver Chris Godwin, who shoved Cowboys CB Jourdan Lewis in the chest to create separation and make a crucial 24-yard catch to put Tampa Bay in field goal range. 

The play appeared to be an obvious push off that wasn’t called. Three snaps later, Succop made a 36-yard field goal to give the Buccaneers the win. Last season, the Cowboys had the call go against them, in this contest, the referees swallowed their whistle. 

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Dallas cannot catch a break in the defining moment of their season openers. However, the Cowboys only have themselves to blame for the spotlight falling on the refs at a critical juncture. The game shouldn’t have come down to the last few minutes.

Dallas’ offense moved the ball up and down the field against the Buccaneers’ vaunted defense. The Cowboys enjoyed 451 yards of offense with Prescott throwing for 403 yards. Two receivers (Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb) had over 100 yards receiving on the night. Defensively, the much-maligned unit caused four turnovers and held firm, yet Dallas still lost the game.

Despite moving the ball effortlessly between the 20s, the Cowboys’ offense bogged down in the red zone. The team went 1-4 on their red zone trips and came away with just 12 points. Having 25% red zone efficiency is an easy way to lose a game and those are opportunities you can’t miss in a bid to upset the champs on the road.

The biggest culprit in the loss, however, was special teams play. Kicker Greg Zuerlein, who was just recently taken off the PUP list after back surgery this offseason, had a dreadful night. 

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Zuerlein did make the long kick to give the Cowboys the late lead, but he missed badly on a 31-yard attempt and sent an extra point off the upright. Those two gimmie kicks that were missed came back to bite the Cowboys. Leaving those four points on the field were the difference in the Buccaneers needing just a field goal to win the game, instead of a touchdown.

Zuerlein also failed to boot a kickoff through the end zone right before the end of the first half, and the result was a 43-yard return from Jaydon Mickens to help set the Bucs up for short field. It took just two plays for Brady to connect with Antonio Brown on a 47-yard score to give Tampa Bay the lead at halftime. 

John Fassel’s special teams groups were horrendous on the night and they played a role in the loss.

The Cowboys played well, but it wasn’t enough. If they make the plays on special teams and cash in on their red zone trips, the missed call late in the game wouldn’t mean much. Instead, Dallas let the Buccaneers stay in the game. They tempted fate and lost. 

There’s no shame in losing to the Buccaneers, but the Cowboys had their chances to come away with a statement win and pin a loss on Brady for the first time in his career against Dallas.

Dallas outgained the Buccaneers on offense, won the time of possession battle despite throwing the ball 58 times, won the turnover margin, and got a timely defensive play to give Prescott the opportunity to win the game. In his first appearance since last October, Prescott delivered to set up the would-be winning points.

It feels like Dallas gave one away, eerily reminiscent of the way things have gone for the Cowboys over the past decade. Good just wasn’t good enough, the Cowboys lost a game they should’ve won.

How do you feel about the Cowboys after their Week 1 showing in Tampa? Share your thoughts on the squad with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi