Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) directs the offense during Dallas's big win against Tampa Bay Saturday.
TAMPA, Fla. — Tony Romo made it look easy, shredding Tampa Bay's secondary at will and helping the Dallas Cowboys get back on track in the NFC East.
"This was an important game," Romo said after throwing for three touchdowns and running for a fourth first-half score Saturday night to lead the first-place Cowboys to a 31-15 rout of the struggling Buccaneers.
"Really the playoffs started for us; that's the way we approached it. Guys came out with great energy and it was a great week of practice. We just had to go forward."
Dallas stopped a two-game losing streak in which it blew fourth-quarter leads to allow a seemingly solid grip on the division lead slip away.
The victory gave the Cowboys (8-6) a half-game lead over New York. Although the Giants hold a tiebreaker advantage after beating Dallas 37-34 last week, the Cowboys can claim the division title and host a playoff game by finishing with wins the next two weeks over Philadelphia at home and the Giants on the road.
"I think it showed our character, our resolve, what we're made of," Dallas linebacker Keith Brooking said. "It was obviously doom and gloom around Valley Ranch for the past couple of weeks — kind of the world was caving in on us. But we just kept fighting and kept plugging away, and we still control our own destiny."
The Bucs (4-10), meanwhile, lost for the eighth straight time and played a miserable first half that certainly didn't do anything to help coach Raheem Morris make a case for keeping his job.
Romo threw a pair of 8-yard TD passes to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant in the first quarter, then finished a seven-play, 89-yard drive with a 9-yarder to Laurent Robinson to make it 21-0 with just under 5 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Romo increased the lead to 28 points on a quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the opening half.
"I thought he just had a good feel for what we were doing against what they were doing," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "I thought he got back quickly and got the ball out of his hands, and when he had to move and make plays, he was able to do that too. He made a lot of big plays and not many bad plays."
Tampa Bay managed just one first down and was outgained 279 yards to 55 in the first two quarters, yet found a way to make it more interesting in the second half.
The Bucs, who had yielded 69 consecutive points dating to the second quarter of the previous week's 41-14 loss at Jacksonville, finally got on the scoreboard in the third quarter when rookie Adrian Clayborn sacked Romo from behind, forcing a fumble that linebacker Dekoda Watson returned 4 yards for a TD for a much-needed spark.
Josh Freeman's 13-yard TD pass to Dezmon Briscoe and a two-point conversion throw to Kellen Winslow cut it to 31-15 heading into the final quarter.
The Cowboys have led in the fourth quarter in five of their six losses, however there wouldn't be a late collapse this time. Tampa Bay turned the ball over on downs twice in the last 6 minutes, and Sammy Morris picked up a first down inside the Bucs 10 to give the Cowboys an opportunity to run out the clock.
"Too little, too late," Morris said about Tampa Bay's comeback. "Not enough ... at the beginning. You can't dig holes like that for yourself."
Austin's TD midway through the first quarter was set up by Tampa Bay's NFL-leading 32nd turnover, a fumble by Freeman on the fifth play of the game.
The Tampa Bay quarterback scrambled 25 yards on third-and-5 to march the Bucs near midfield, but the opening possession of the night came to an abrupt halt on the next play when Freeman took off again for a 7-yard gain and was stripped of the ball at the Cowboys 44.
Linebacker Bradie James recovered and it took Romo seven plays to get Dallas in the end zone for the first time. The Cowboys marched 69 yards in 10 plays on their next possession, with Romo finishing the drive by finding a wide-open Bryant in the back of the end zone to make it 14-0.
In three career games against Tampa Bay — all lopsided victories — Romo has thrown for 908 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. He was 23 of 30 for 249 yards and was sacked twice Saturday night.
"I was just finding guys who were open and the guys do the rest," Romo said. "I thought the offense played good as a whole."
Felix Jones, back in the starting lineup after DeMarco Murray broke his right ankle last week in a 37-34 loss to the Giants, broke a 38-yard run on the drive leading to Robinson's TD and finished with 108 yards on 22 carries — his second straight 100-yard performance had 67 yards rushing on 12 carries at halftime.
Freeman, making his second start since missing a game because of an injured throwing shoulder, was 17 of 27 for 148 yards and no interceptions. He led the Bucs in rushing with 37 yards on four attempts and was sacked three times, once by DeMarcus Ware, who notched his 16th of the season.
Thanks to a large contingent of Cowboys fans, the Bucs played before a sellout crowd at home for just the second time in two seasons. Judging by all the blue and white jerseys scattered throughout the 65,000-seat stadium, at least half the house appeared to be rooting for Dallas.
The Bucs have lost eight straight following a 4-2 start that included wins over NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta. The skid has Morris on the hot seat just a year after the NFL's youngest head coach led his team to a surprising 10-6 finish that heightened expectations coming into this season.
Tampa Bay finishes up with games at Carolina and Atlanta. Freeman said Morris' status is out of his hands, but that he and his teammates intend to give maximum effort the rest of the way.
"If you're not going out and giving everything you have for these last two games, you don't really deserve to be out there," Freeman said. "You've got to take some pride in what you're doing."
Notes: Tampa Bay CB Aqib Talib started after sitting out the previous week because of a sore right hamstring, however he aggravated the injury in the first half and did not return. ... By building an early lead, the Cowboys essentially took leading rusher LeGarrette Blount out of Tampa Bay's lineup. Blount, who rarely plays in passing situations, was limited to 21 yards on nine carries. ... Morris finished with 53 yards rushing on 12 attempts for the Cowboys.