Dallas Cowboys complete turnaround by winning NFC East title

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Turns out, the Dallas Cowboys did not need any help to clinch their second NFC East title in three seasons.

The Cowboys beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-20 on Sunday to secure their third playoff berth in the past five years.

If the Cowboys (9-6) had not beaten the Buccaneers, they would have headed into Week 17's game against the New York Giants possibly needing a victory to close out a playoff spot, after the Philadelphia Eagles got past the Houston Texans on Sunday.

"We wanted to come out here and get things done under our own will, so to say," Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott said. "Not necessarily win the division by other teams losing. We wanted to come in and secure this thing and get it done this week. It was a big team win."

It has been quite a turnaround for the Cowboys.

A playoff spot seemed far from possible after the Cowboys' Nov. 5 loss to the Tennessee Titans left them with a 3-5 record, but they have since won six of seven games to make the postseason.

"It speaks volumes about the guys in the locker room and the fight that we have," Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin said. "Kind of took on a mantra, a back-against-the-wall mantra. Not a desperation backs against the wall but kind of the only place we can go is forward. Guys bought into that and got some huge wins down the stretch. It's pretty special to be able to close this thing out at home."

Successful seasons in Dallas, however, are defined by postseason wins, and the Cowboys have not made it to a Super Bowl -- or played in an NFC Championship Game -- since 1995. The Cowboys have won just three playoff games since winning Super Bowl XXX and just one with Jason Garrett as head coach (in 2014).

"We're playing the kind of football where you can win games in the postseason," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said.

Garrett's job still might not be secure even with a playoff showing. He is signed through 2019, and if the Cowboys are to make anything more than a cameo appearance in the postseason, they have a lot to clean up, especially offensively.

A week after getting shut out by the Indianapolis Colts, the Cowboys' offense scored two touchdowns, but one was on a 4-yard drive after Randy Gregory recovered a Tampa Bay fumble in the third quarter. After going 75 yards on eight plays on their first drive, the Cowboys did not have a drive with multiple first downs over their next five possessions.

Prescott's 7-yard run on the opening drive was the Cowboys' third red zone touchdown in their past four games, but in trying to score on their second red zone trip of the game, Amari Cooper was dropped for a 7-yard loss on a shovel pass on second-and-goal from the 3. The offense stalled once again, and the Cowboys eventually had to settle for Brett Maher's second field goal of the game for a 20-13 lead.

Just 1:18 after the field goal, Gregory recovered a muffed handoff between Jameis Winston and Bobo Wilson on a jet sweep at the Buccaneers' 4. Groans went up after Prescott's first-down fade pass to Noah Brown fell incomplete. Cheers went up when Prescott found Michael Gallup on a fade for a touchdown to the other side of the end zone.

In the playoffs, teams have to maximize their scoring opportunities. On the season, the Cowboys have converted just 21 of 46 chances inside the opponents' 20.

"It was better than we did last week and better than we had [been doing]," Prescott said of the Cowboys' issues in the red zone. "We can start there, but we can also get a lot better. We can turn some of those field goal drives into touchdowns. We did a better job executing, just some of them didn't work and that's how it goes. You can go home with a good feeling that you gave it a good shot and it wasn't missed execution."

The defense also contributed a touchdown, with Jaylon Smith's 69-yard fumble return after a Gregory sack in the first quarter.

It wasn't a pretty playoff-clinching victory, but considering where the Cowboys were Nov. 5, making the postseason with one game to spare is something of an accomplishment.

"At 1-2, at 3-3, at 3-5 we knew exactly what we had," Prescott said. "We knew the team that we had. And we still have that. There is a lot of work to be done. We're going to celebrate the right way and then it's right back to work."