Last Updated: Dec 18, 2011 9:56 AM
Tampa, FL (Sports Network) - After a pair of late-game collapses, the Cowboys made sure they weren't going to blow a 28-point lead against the Buccaneers Saturday night.
Dallas is alone atop the NFC East, at least until Sunday afternoon.
Tony Romo threw for three first-half touchdowns and ran for another score as Dallas earned a 31-15 victory, dealing Tampa Bay its eighth consecutive defeat.
More importantly, the Cowboys (8-6), who suffered heart-breaking losses against Arizona and the Giants the previous two weeks, are now a half-game ahead of New York for first place in the division.
The Cowboys will host Philadelphia next Sunday and then finish the regular season with a showdown on the road against the Giants in possibly a winner- take-all scenario for the division title. New York hosts Washington this Sunday before playing the Jets.
Romo, who hasn't been picked off in his last three games, completed 23-of-30 passes for 249 yards. Felix Jones rushed 22 times for 108 yards.
"We really needed to get back on track. This was an important game," Romo said. "Really, the playoffs started for us and that's the way we approached it."
Josh Freeman went 17-of-27 for 148 yards with a TD for the Buccaneers (4-10), who haven't won since October 16, when they topped the Saints. This is their first eight-game skid in a single season since 1987.
Dekoda Watson returned a Romo fumble for a touchdown, but the Bucs couldn't climb the mountain after falling behind 28-0 at the half.
"I thought our defense played really, really well throughout the ball game," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "When you get into the second half, you're dealing with the clock just as much as anything else."
The first possession of the night ended in disaster for the Bucs. Freeman scrambled up the middle for 25 yards, just across the midfield stripe. On the next play, Freeman dashed up the center of the field again, but Anthony Spencer knocked the ball loose from behind and Bradie James recovered for Dallas.
The Cowboys moved from their own 44 to the eight, and on third down, Romo scrambled before finding Miles Austin in front part of the end zone. Austin battled Sean Jones for the ball and the two came down together at the goal line. Officials used video replay to determine Austin had possession in the end zone.
Later in the opening quarter, Romo led the Cowboys on a 10-play, 69-yard drive, which was finished off by an eight-yard strike to Dez Bryant at the back of the end zone with 18 seconds left.
Tampa Bay manufactured just seven first downs all night, just one in the first half.
"You can't dig holes like that for yourselves and you can't play like that on third down," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "Obviously, we didn't play that well on third down, offensively and defensively."
Meanwhile, Romo continued to build Dallas' lead. He scrambled to his right and found Laurent Robinson in the back of the end zone for a nine-yard connection with 4:42 remaining in the half.
Romo then engineered the visitors in the two-minute huddle. Following a timeout, on 3rd-and-2, Kevin Ogletree caught a four-yard pass to the one. Romo didn't take Dallas' final timeout of the half, instead surging into a pile and over the goal line with 20 seconds left for the four-touchdown lead.
Just over a minute into the second half, Adrian Clayborn stripped Romo of the ball and Watson bolted for the end zone on a seven-yard return.
Dan Bailey kicked a 30-yard field goal later in the third to cap a drive that consumed seven minutes, but Freeman hit Dezmon Briscoe with a 13-yard scoring pass in the closing minute. Kellen Winslow caught the two-point conversion pass.
Tampa Bay got as far as the Dallas 42 early in the fourth, but on 4th-and-12 from the 44, Freeman's pass fell incomplete.
Freeman failed on another fourth down pass deep in Tampa Bay territory with inside two minutes left. The Cowboys ran out the remaining time.
The Bucs have a 3-12 regular season mark against Dallas...The Bucs had 58 yards rushing, 37 from Freeman and 21 from LeGarrette Blount...Dallas held the ball for nearly 38 minutes.