ARLINGTON, Texas — Dak Prescott shared a brief hug with star running back Ezekiel Elliott after the Dallas quarterback kneeled twice to wrap up their second NFC East title in three seasons together.
The postgame celebration was equally muted after Prescott accounted for two touchdowns and Jaylon Smith returned a fumble 69 yards for a score in a 27-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Now it’s on to something Prescott and Elliott couldn’t do after an NFC-best 13 victories during their remarkable rookie year together in 2016: win a playoff game.
“We’ve got a lot more work to do,” Prescott said after running for Dallas’ first touchdown and throwing a 4-yard pass to Michael Gallup for the last. “This is something that we set out, wanted to do way back in the offseason, and this is giving us a chance to go and get the greater goal.”
Smith’s long return came after a scrambling Jameis Winston lost the ball on a blind-side sack by Randy Gregory, who also recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown for a 14-point lead late in the third quarter.
The Cowboys (9-6) clinched their third division title in five seasons a week after failing in their first chance with their first shutout loss in 15 years, 23-0 at Indianapolis.
It was a moment of redemption for Elliott, whose six-game suspension over domestic violence allegations last year came just as the Cowboys were playing their best. The ensuing three-game losing streak ultimately kept them out of the playoffs.
“We can’t get comfortable,” said Elliott, who had 85 yards rushing. “We can’t afford to take a week off next week. We’ve got to keep working and make sure we’re ready for the playoffs.”
Winston threw for 336 yards in another prolific passing game for the Buccaneers (5-10), who outgained the Cowboys 383 yards to 232 but hurt themselves with turnovers and holding penalties. Tampa Bay’s third straight loss clinched the franchise’s fifth season of at least 10 losses in the past six years, a week after the Bucs were eliminated from postseason contention.
“It’s frustrating to move the ball like that and not get touchdowns,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “Against good teams, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Smith’s fumble return and Gregory’s recovery at the Tampa Bay 4 helped a Dallas offense that wasn’t sharp for a second straight week. Prescott was 20 of 25 but for just 161 yards.
Prescott ran 7 yards to cap the only lengthy Dallas touchdown drive, a 75-yarder. His toss to the rookie Gallup came after Gregory’s recovery, which resulted from a botched exchange between Winston and receiver Bobo Wilson.
A play before that bad exchange in a seven-point game, Peyton Barber’s 33-yard run was wiped out by one of four holding penalties against the Bucs.
Smith gave the Cowboys a 14-3 lead in the second quarter, scooping up the loose ball after Gregory hit Winston from behind and outrunning the Tampa Bay quarterback down the sideline for his first career touchdown.
The sprint was one of the best illustrations of Smith getting his speed back after the devastating knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame that sidelined him as a rookie with the Cowboys in 2016. For the first time this season, he’s playing without a brace designed to offset nerve damage.
“I’ve been known as a sideline-to-sideline fast linebacker and athlete,” Smith said. “Had I run the 40 (at the NFL combine), I would have been somewhere in the 4.4s and all that good stuff. But it feels good to be able to open up like that again at the highest level.”
Winston’s 7-yard pass to Mike Evans got the Bucs within a touchdown with 2:05 remaining, but Dallas linebacker Leighton Vander Esch recovered the onside kick. Evans had six catches for 90 yards, and Adam Humphries had 10 grabs for 79 yards.
With a chance to get within a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter, Winston was stopped about half a yard short of the first down at the Dallas 1 on a fourth-down scramble.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
The Cowboys could have clinched the division with a Philadelphia loss at home against Houston. The issue was already settled by the time Jake Elliott hit a 35-yard field goal as time expired to give the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles a 32-30 win. “I think it was mandatory for us to go out there and take care of it ourselves,” Elliott said. “Honestly, it just feels better.”
Elliott, the NFL rushing leader by 98 yards over Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams coming in, is at 1,434 yards with what could be seen as a meaningless game at the Giants to finish the regular season. In a similar situation two years ago, Elliott didn’t play at Philadelphia. His final carry Sunday was an 11-yarder for a first down that allowed Prescott to run out the clock.
Dallas defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford went to a hospital to have a neck injury evaluated after getting hurt on the second play of the game. Crawford’s neck was stabilized on a stretcher with his facemask removed. The seventh-year player was moving his arms and legs before he was taken off the field.
The Cowboys said after the game that Crawford was released from the hospital and would be re-evaluated by the team’s medical staff Monday.
This story was authored by Associated Press pro football writer, Schuyler Dixon.