ARLINGTON, Texas — Ezekiel Elliott ran faster after he crossed the goal line than he did looking for a hole to get in the end zone from the 2-yard line.
Dallas’ rookie sensation and NFL rushing leader had his eyes on an oversized Salvation Army red kettle in front of the stands. He jumped in, then disappeared when he crouched down.
Elliott rushed for a career-high 159 yards and that short score and the Cowboys closed in on home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a 26-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday night.
The Cowboys (12-2) bounced back after their franchise-record 11-game winning streak ended, hanging on after what looked to be a festive night following Elliott’s antics turned tense when Jameis Winston rallied the Bucs from a 17-3 deficit to a 20-17 lead.
“One of the words we talked about right from the outset this week was `response,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We did a good job early in the ballgame to get a lead and they started throwing the ball a lot early in the second half and they went ahead.
“And again, that word `response’ came back to the forefront.”
Making his debut in the Sunday night spotlight, Winston threw for 247 yards and two touchdowns but had four turnovers, including an interception that led to Dan Bailey’s 38-yard field goal that gave Dallas a 23-20 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Tampa Bay (8-6) had its five-game winning streak snapped and fell a game behind Atlanta in the NFC South.
“We’ve just got to keep winning, see how it plays out,” Winston said. “I know I’m going to keep fighting. I’m not worried about not fighting. We just got to keep winning games.”
Dallas stayed two games ahead of the New York Giants in the NFC East and needs a win without any help to clinch the home field for the postseason.
Elliott had NFL career rushing leader and former Dallas star Emmitt Smith and plenty of his teammates laughing when he jumped into the kettle — a staple in the end zones from Thanksgiving on every year with one of the Cowboys’ most visible charities.
Garrett wasn’t quite as amused, mostly because the move cost the Cowboys a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff.
“He was actually talking about that pregame, should he do it, will they fine him,” said fellow rookie Dak Prescott, Elliott’s quarterback. “I didn’t know he was actually going to go down and come back up slow. Got a good laugh out of it, him coming up real slowly. It was funny.”
Prescott bounced back from his worst game as a pro, going 32 of 36 for 279 yards a week after completing less than 50 percent of his passes in a 10-7 loss to the New York Giants.
He also set a franchise record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback on a wide-open 2-yarder up the middle on a draw. His sixth rushing score of the year topped Don Meredith’s previous club record from 1966.
Elliott had 76 of his yards with Dallas trying to control the clock on its final two possessions, but Winston still had a chance in the final 2 minutes after second-half scoring tosses to Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate gave the Bucs a brief lead.
Tampa Bay’s last chance ended on downs at its 20, and the Bucs’ got just one first down on their final three possessions.