ARLINGTON, Texas - The Dallas Cowboys rode their defense to overcome a mistake-prone Tony Romo and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16-10 Sunday afternoon before of a crowd of 81,984 at Cowboys Stadium.
Romo turned the ball over three times, but Dallas' defense allowed just one touchdown and 166 total yards as the Cowboys improved to 2-1 in their home opener.
"It was far from artistic," Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. "I thought the defense was outstanding. They allowed us to stay in the ballgame."
The Buccaneers (1-2) were thoroughly outplayed, but were within striking distance until Dez Bryant's 45-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter helped seal the Dallas win.
Romo completed 25 of 39 passes for 283 yards, but also had a pick and two lost fumbles. He was finally able to hold onto the ball long enough to engineer a 72-yard march that resulted in a 26-yard field goal from Dan Bailey and 13-7 lead with 11:14 remaining in the game.
"To win this game, with the way our defense played, and grind it out," Romo said. "This is a very, very satisfying win, even though it will kind of get lost in the shuffle as you move into the season."
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman suffered through a miserable day, completing just 10 of 28 for 110 yards and an interception. The Bucs did get a field goal with 40 seconds left, but Dallas recovered the ensuing onsides kick and proceeded to run out the clock.
"Today was honestly an off day for our offense," Freeman said. "We feel like we had a great week of practice. We were looking forward to doing a lot of things we were going well. We got knocked off our rhythm."
The victory proved a nice bounce back from last week's 27-7 loss at Seattle. Tampa Bay has dropped two straight on the road since a season-opening win over Carolina.
Dallas was in position to pad its 10-7 lead early in the third quarter, but Romo's fumble inside the Tampa Bay 20 squelched that chance. The play was initially ruled an incomplete pass before being overturned by replay.
Romo's troubles didn't end there. He fumbled late in the third, this time after taking a vicious hit from Tampa Bay defensive end Michael Bennett. (The fumbled was returned for a touchdown, but officials had blown the play dead and before it was reviewed.) Still, the Bucs couldn't take advantage despite starting the drive on the Dallas 31.
"That's part of the game," Bennett said. "We had other chances to win the game. We can't blame it on one opportunity. You have to capitalize on every opportunity you get in this game."
The Cowboys capitalized on their second takeaway of the game to take a 10-7 edge in the second quarter. Tampa Bay's Jordan Shipley muffed punt return was recovered at Bucs' 39 by Dallas' Orie Lemon, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday.
A 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty was tacked on to the end of the play. The Cowboys got down to the 12 before settling on Bailey's 32-yard field goal.
Dallas took that three-point lead into the locker room. Neither team was able to generate much offense in the half, with the Cowboys holding a 115-70 edge in total yardage.
"Offensively, we struggled," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "Everybody is a part of that struggle."
The Cowboys' first drive ended poorly, as Romo was picked off by cornerback Aqib Talib. Romo tried to force a third-down pass into Miles Austin, who was double covered.
Taking over at the Dallas 29, the Buccaneers scored six plays later on Freeman's 1-yard pass to Luke Stocker. Tampa Bay converted a fourth-and-1 on the 2-yard line and took advantage of two Cowboys' penalties, including a costly pass inference against Dallas rookie Morris Claiborne.
The Bucs gave that early turnover and touchdown back later in the quarter when third-down back D.J. Ware had a short pass bounce off his facemask and into the hands of Dallas linebacker Sean Lee.
"Ugly is good if we win," Lee said. "I don't care how it's going or what the deal is. If we get the 'W' that's what we care about and that's what we did."
Freeman's hard-luck pick -- his first of the season -- had the Cowboys set up at the 23. The four-play drive was capped by DeMarco Murray's 11-yard sprint to the left pylon, tying the game at 7-7.
Tampa Bay plays host to Washington on Sunday, while the Cowboys welcome Chicago to Cowboys Stadium on Monday night.
NOTES: Tampa Bay CB Aqib Talib recorded his first interception of the year and the 18th of his career. Talib has now taken over sole possession of eighth place on the team's all-time interception list. ... Cowboys S Barry Church is out for the season after suffering a torn Achilles. ... Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn (leg injury) was helped off the field and didn't return. ... Dallas had three defensive starters out with injury: S Gerald Sensabaugh (calf strain), DT Kenyon Coleman (knee) and NT Jay Ratliff (ankle). Danny McCray made his first career start in Sensabaugh's place. On offense, C Phil Costa, S Matt Johnson, LB Alex Albright and WR Cole Beasley were also inactive. ... Reserve CB Anthony Gaitor (hamstring) was the only player out due to injury for Tampa Bay. WR Sammie Stroughter and WR Preston Parker were scratched. Buccaneers inactives were CB E.J. Biggers, RB Michael Smith, S Keith Tandy, T Jamon Meredith and DE George Johnson.