TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – If the suddenly reeling Dallas Cowboys learned anything while letting a solid grip on the NFC East lead slip away, it’s to not take anything for granted.
So while Tony Romo and a talented supporting cast may still control their own destiny in the division race, a string of late collapses that’s cost them a clear path to the playoffs illustrate why they can’t afford to overlook anyone — including the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night — down the stretch.
“We take it week by week,” Romo said, declining to speculate on the prospects of rebounding from consecutive losses to the Cardinals and Giants to finish atop the standings.
The Cowboys (7-6) are tied with the Giants for first place, however New York holds the tie-breaker advantage after rallying from a 12-point deficit in the final three minutes to win 37-34 in Dallas last Sunday.
Dallas can clinch the NFC East by winning remaining games against Tampa Bay (4-9), at home against Philadelphia, and on the road against the Giants in the regular season finale.
“Obviously we’ve lost a couple of close games. … We just have to come out and play a great game this week, have great energy and play our best game of the year,” Romo said. “It’s going to be a great challenge. … Tampa is never an easy place to play.”
The Bucs have lost seven straight and eight of nine overall following a 3-1 start, raising questions about whether ownership is contemplating replacing coach Raheem Morris.
There’s been talk that Cowboys coach Jason Garrett may be on the hotseat, too, even though Dallas owner Jerry Jones said this week that Garrett’s job is safe.
Garrett said he’s focused on the Buccaneers, not whether he will be dismissed if the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs.
“There’s no question, any time the owner says something positive, that’s a good thing,” Garrett said. “But again we know what the challenges are, and we’ve got to keep putting our best foot forward. We ask our players to do that and we have to do that as coaches, regardless of what anybody says.”
The Bucs, who’ve fallen apart after a start that included victories over NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta, are relishing their role as potential spoilers.
After facing the Cowboys, who’ve led in the fourth quarter of five of their six losses, Tampa Bay closes on the road at Carolina and Atlanta.
“Dallas is kind of on the bubble right now. … I can’t think of anything happier than to go out and get a win and maybe put a damper on their hopes,” Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman said, adding that while Tampa Bay’s skid has been frustrating he and teammates haven’t given up on themselves.
“Guys just want to win. We’re upset about losing, but guys come into work and want to do something about it to correct it. It’s not a deal where we’re losing and nobody wants to be around the building or nobody wants to work at it,” Freeman added. “Guys are still giving it all they’ve got, trying to figure out a way to right the ship.”
After leading the Bucs to a surprising 10-6 record and narrowly missing the playoffs last season, Freeman has struggled in his second full season as a starter.
A year ago, the third quarterback selected in the 2009 draft threw for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions. This season, he’s been slowed by right thumb and shoulder injuries, made some poor decisions with the football and thrown for 12 touchdowns vs. 18 interceptions.
Garrett looks at Freeman and sees a 23-year-old experiencing the normal growing pains of a NFL quarterback.
“I think what happens is for any quarterback of any age, taking care of the football is a critical thing. We certainly understand, I think everybody around the league understands that,” the Dallas coach said.
“Sometimes interceptions or turnovers happen for a lot of reasons. You have to try to minimize them as best you can. He didn’t have a lot of them last year, so he certainly understands how to do that and handle that. He’ll grow with every experience he gets. He’s certainly a heck of a young player, and a guy who’s got a great future.”
Tampa Bay turned the ball over seven times against the Jaguars and enter Saturday night tied with the Eagles with a league-leading 31 giveaways, compared to 19 all of last season. The Bucs also are the third-most penalized team in the league.
Morris declines to make excuses, but stresses that as the league’s youngest team the Bucs are far from a finished product. He’s adamant that he has the team headed in the right direction. He insists he’s not spending time worrying about his job because the pressure to win is no greater than it’s ever been.
“If you don’t feel like you’re working for your job every day,” the third-year coach said, “then you’re probably not doing your job.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)