NFL Sunday Night Betting Preview: Dallas vs. Tampa Bay

Tonight, the last game on the docket is an important one, as the nation’s favorite team will be in the in the spotlight again as the Dallas Cowboys risk their record against a feisty Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Cowboys are sitting atop their division and their conference right now, with an impressive 11-2 record, their only two losses coming from the same team, the New York Giants. So after being beat a second time by them last week 10-7, the Cowboys will be looking to get back to collecting victories against a feisty Tampa Bay team that has surprised many critics with how efficiently they’ve developed into a real championship contender.

Tampa Bay is a solid 8-5, and has improved a lot, especially the progress they’ve made on defense, since it’s allowed them to win games. Of course playmakers on offense will get all the attention, but it’s their defense that has overachieved. Currently, the Bucs are ranked 10th in overall defensively, ranked by the efficiency of a defense compared with league average in terms of how they limit yards and points.

The overall power of the Bucs’ defensive unit starts with their pass defense, which currently ranks 6th in the NFL. They generate their pass rush through several players, but the linchpin that holds this defensive line together is Gerald McCoy. He’s the defensive tackle from Oklahoma, and ever since he got into the league has been a handful to deal with. His intimidating presence on the line means that a double team from the offensive line will have to face up against him if they want to open up space for their edge rushers. Even though he has seen double teams often this season, McCoy still excels as a pass rusher, getting 7.0 sacks this season, and and average of 33.5 over his last four seasons combined.

Supporting McCoy is Pro Bowl linebacker Lavonte David, who is someone who leads by example and sets the tone on this Bucs’ team. David is an efficient pass rusher and functions as a secondary coverage linebacker, where he has racked up 65 tackles, a sack, an interception, four forced fumbles and one defensive touchdown. He is definitely not second fiddle here.

Even though David’s overall production has been a little lower compared to previous seasons, Buc’s defensive coordinator Mike Smith focused on David for his play, after their win against the San Diego Chargers where David took an interception back for a touchdown. Ever since, he’s been on the rise.

“Lavonte, I think, has had a solid season,” Smith told local media in Tampa Bay. “I know his numbers are not what they’ve been in the past, but what he’s doing for this defense is an integral part of what we’re trying to get accomplished.”

Offensively, Tampa Bay has a great passing attack. Second year quarterback Jameis Winston has found his groove, throwing for 244.5 yards per game with 23 touchdowns to only 12 interceptions. Winston has minimized his mistakes in year two, and has taken advantage of a healthy and productive wide receiver in Mike Evans. Evans is lighting his opponent on fire this season, and is on fire himself, catching 80 passes for 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Even though, Tampa has struggled in several cases offensively, and sputtered getting their running game started, Dallas does not have those issues.

Dallas is the NFL’s second-ranked rush attack, averaging 152.2 yards per game, and they might even be better than what the numbers show. Dallas is touted for having the third best offensive line in the league in terms of adjusted line yards, which is a statistic that measures all running back carries, and assigns significance to the offensive line based on their success. Running back rookie Ezekiel Elliott is having a breakout season, going for 1,392 yards on 4.9 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns. So the proof is in the pudding.

Of course, the Cowboys can only go as far as their rookie quarterback Dak Prescott can take them. Prescott has stolen Romo’s job, and has been amazing at QB, throwing for 3,139 yards and 20 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. His 81.2 QBR (Total Quarterback Rating) right now is second best in the league, tied with Matt Ryan, trailing only the infamous Tom Brady. Dak had a tough time against the Giants both times this season, completing only 55.6 percent of his passes and throwing for only 5.0 yards per pass. So, if he wants to quell the critiques and those who might want QB Tony Romo back in the game, Dak will need to be on his game against Tampa Bay tonight.

The main matchup after the QBs, will be Tampa Bay’s star wideout Mike Evans against Dallas’s secondary. Cornerback Brandon Carr will probably get most of the man-to-man coverage, so Dallas will need to use its safeties and be creative if they want to slow down Pro Football Focus’s No. 1 rated wide receiver.

The Cowboys want to rebound on home turf but it won’t be east since Tampa is firing on all cylinders and wants to win more feverishly than the Cowboys. The Bucs should be able to pull off a surprise upset and beat Dallas, since nothing is better for football than a little controversy at the QB position, and Prescott knowing this, might just let the nerves get to him.

Prediction: Bucs over Cowboys, 27-24