The Dallas Cowboys are hoping the loss of DeMarco Murray won’t derail their season.
It looks like a trip to London may have been the catalyst to ending the hopes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Two teams looking for answers meet Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium with the Cowboys trying to avoid a third straight loss and the Buccaneers on a seven-game slide.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have the Cowboys as seven-point road favorites, with the total set at 47 1/2.
Dallas (7-6) dropped into a first-place tie in the NFC East with the Giants after blowing a late 12-point lead in Sunday’s 37-34 home defeat to New York. The Cowboys had a tying field goal blocked at the end, marking the second straight game they have failed to convert one at the close of regulation.
Perhaps a bigger loss happened in the first quarter when Murray fractured his right ankle. Murray, averaging 137.4 rushing yards over the Cowboys’ last five victories and on pace to become the franchise’s first 1,000-yard back since 2006, has been placed on injured reserve.
Felix Jones, who gained 106 yards on 16 carries Sunday, becomes the starter again. The Cowboys signed journeyman Sammy Morris on Monday.
“DeMarco has been a big part of this offense and big part of this football team,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “We are lucky to have a guy like Felix, obviously, who can step in.”
Dallas could have put a stranglehold on the division had it won Sunday. The Cowboys still would win the division by capturing their final three games, and can even win it by losing to Tampa Bay (4-9) and winning the last two.
“We still control our own destiny,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think our players understand.”
The Buccaneers last dropped eight in a row during a season in 1987, when they lost their final eight games. Tampa Bay missed the playoffs at 10-6 last year and began 2011 with a 4-2 mark before an Oct. 23 loss to Chicago in London started this skid.
The losing has put third-year coach Raheem Morris’ job in jeopardy.
“It’s great for you guys to scare my family half to death and talk about that stuff all throughout,” Morris said. “But for us, man, it’s a mentally tough business. It is move on. It is next opponent. It’s next man up. It’s the Dallas Cowboys. … For me, a chance to ruin Jason Garrett’s season, and let you talk about him.”
Tampa Bay seemed to have a budding star on its hands in 2010 in Josh Freeman, who had 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. That ratio has dropped to 12 TDs and a league-high 18 interceptions this year.
Freeman returned last Sunday after missing a game with an injured throwing shoulder, but the results were disastrous as the Buccaneers fell 41-14 at Jacksonville.
Tampa Bay has allowed the most points in the NFC (370) and has lost four times at by least 19.
“You might think guys might be kinda down,” Freeman said. “Like I said, we’re upset about losing. Guys are coming to work and they’ve been wanting to do something about it to correct it.”
Freeman is relishing the chance to go up against a Dallas defense that allowed 510 yards last Sunday for the highest total by a Cowboys opponent in five years.
“Dallas is kind of on the bubble right now, what are they, 7-6?” Freeman said. “So I can’t think of anything happier than to go out and get a win this week and that may put a damper on their hopes.”
Sunday’s lackluster defensive showing ruined a strong performance by Romo, who threw four touchdown passes for the first time since 2007 and recorded his fifth 300-yard effort of the year. Romo’s passer rating is a career-best 100.6 for the NFL’s fourth-highest mark, and he’s fifth in the league with 26 TD passes.
The Cowboys are headed back on the road, where they have played three overtime games and two others decided on scores within the final 30 seconds.
Garrett’s clock management has come into question after some of the close games. He called a timeout before Dan Bailey missed a 49-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation in a 19-13 OT loss at Arizona on Dec. 4 and also let some extra time elapse last weekend before calling a timeout with the Cowboys on defense late in the game.
“The nature of our team is we’ve played a lot of close games,” Garrett said. “We’ve won maybe half of them and we’ve lost some other ones. You have to look at situations, see what happens, some way, somehow process it, learn from it and hopefully go forward.”
Dallas has won the last three meetings with Tampa Bay. Romo needed only 16 completions to throw for 353 yards and three scores in the last matchup, a 34-21 win Sept. 13, 2009.