Analysis

What We Learned: Takeaways from Cowboys’ Wild Card Win over Buccaneers

How ’bout them Cowboys?

Dallas went to Tampa Bay and dominated in every phase to round up a convincing 31-14 wild-card victory over a listless Buccaneers team.

Dak Prescott had a hand in all five Cowboys touchdowns, playing a virtually flawless game, while his quarterback counterpart, Tom Brady, had a night to forget. The loss marked only the fourth one-and-done for Brady in the 20 years he’s gone to the playoffs, and the 17-point margin was the second-largest postseason defeat of his career.

The victory sends the fifth-seeded Cowboys to San Francisco on Sunday, when they will play the No. 2 seed 49ers in a Divisional Round game. It was Dallas’ first road playoff victory in nine tries extending back to 1993.

Here are five key takeaways from the game:

1. Dak Is Back

One of the Cowboys’ biggest question marks entering the playoffs was what was wrong with Dak Prescott? The quarterback had 15 touchdown passes but 11 interceptions during Dallas’ final seven regular-season games. His 15 interceptions (in just 12 games) during the season tied the Texans’ Davis Mills for the NFL lead.

Then there was the dismal regular-season finish against the Commanders, in which Prescott went 14-of-37 in a loss that cost the Cowboys the NFC East title.

“Going into the game, it was a toss-up for me because of how poorly Dak Prescott had been playing the last game of the season, where they limp into the playoffs, the volume of interceptions that he’s thrown, and just the general inconsistency that you’ve seen from the team,” said analyst Eric Mangini of The 33rd Team.

After a 0-for-3 start Monday night, Prescott caught fire and completed his next 11 passes and 15 of his final 17 before halftime. Two of those completions went to tight end Dalton Schultz for touchdowns, and Prescott sandwiched those around his bootleg TD run on a fourth-and-goal play from the 1. He gained 20 of Dallas’ 65 first-half yards on the ground.

Prescott didn’t slow down after halftime, finishing 25-for-33 for 305 yards for a Cowboys playoff-record four TD passes. He found receivers Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb for two more scoring strikes. In all, the Cowboys amassed 425 yards, including 128 on the ground.

“He looked in control, he looked poised,” Mangini said. “He actually looked aggressive as a quarterback and completely confident, not only with his ability, but confident with the moment. You couldn’t guarantee that or even really expect that based off of everything he’s shown … with the picks. It’s 40 percent more picks (in 12 games) than his worst season, which was a 16-game season.”

Schultz and backup Jake Ferguson exposed Tampa Bay’s inability to cover tight ends, combining for nine catches for 129 yards.

The Cowboys scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives, covering 80, 80, 91, and 86 yards, during a span from midway through the first quarter until late in the third.

2. Maher Misses and Misses and …

Brett Maher carved his name in the NFL record books in the first half and cemented it there in the second half, but not for reasons he or the Cowboys were celebrating. The fourth-year kicker set a playoff record for missed extra points by sending all three of his first-half tries wide of the goal posts (first two right, third one left).

The whammy continued in the third quarter when he hit the top of the right upright after Dallas scored a touchdown for a fourth consecutive drive. His fourth missed extra point set an NFL record for any game in league history.

“It’s a huge concern now,” Mangini said. “When you miss four kicks in a game, it’s hard to go into the next game where you go home if you lose, not knowing whether or not you can hit an extra point. The problem is who do you go and get that you have that much more confidence in than the guy who has been so reliable throughout the course of the season.

“Do you carry an extra kicker on the roster in the next game, in case he has the yips like he did in this game? It’s a problem, and thankfully for them it wasn’t an issue in this game. If you’re sitting in that next game against San Francisco, and the game comes down to a kick to win it, or if you miss an extra point to lose the game, you’re going to be sick.”

Absolutely nothing in Maher’s history suggested this was coming. He went 50-for-53 during the regular season (94.3 percent) and before Monday night had made more than 96 percent of his career attempts (129 of 135 career attempts, including 5-for-5 in his only playoff appearance in 2018). What’s more, he is the only kicker in NFL history who has made four field goals of 60 yards or longer.

The good news? He crushed his fifth try with 10:13 left in the fourth quarter to make it 31-6.

3. What’s Next for Brady, Bucs?

Brady is an unrestricted free agent. Will he want to continue playing in Tampa Bay? Somewhere else? At all? That will be one of the NFL’s biggest offseason storylines.

“It’s hard for me to imagine he’s going to be back in Tampa Bay,” Mangini said. “It just seems like it’s probably time for both parties to move on. It’s probably time for Tampa Bay to look for a long-term solution, and it’s probably time to look for a team that’s a little bit better equipped for where he’s at at this point in his career.”

Brady was non-committal about the future, saying simply “I’m going home and get a good night’s sleep … (and take things) one day at a time.”

Brady ended his press conference by thanking the Bucs, the media, and Bucs fans.

Former Bucs star Ronde Barber, a 33rd Team analyst, said Brady has earned the right to decide where – and if – he wants to play next season, but he wonders if it isn’t time for a chance in Tampa.

“I’m not sure they should keep Tom,” Barber said. “I think this team is at a point where they’re going to let him make the decision, obviously, it’s Tom Brady, he can make the decision. But this team is probably looking to evolve a little bit away from what they have once been.

“So I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s somewhat of a mutual parting if he’s not here in the 2023 season.”

What other changes might be in story for the Bucs? The roster has plenty of aging parts.

How about the coaching staff? Todd Bowles’ first playoff game as a head coach was one to forget, and it came on the heels of an 8-9 regular season. Then there is the Byron Leftwich-coordinated offense, which finished No. 25 in scoring and didn’t sustain any consistency on the ground most of the season. On Monday, the Bucs ran the ball just 12 times, while Brady threw it 66 times for 351 yards.

“I would guess Todd Bowles is back in 2023,” Barber said. “I think they gave a lot of autonomy to him with the staff that was already here with Bruce Arians over the past couple years. But I bet you they give Todd another opportunity.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they made some adjustments to their staff. They’ve had some issues across the board, but I know in the middle of the season they had the faith in Todd to bring them through what were some struggles earlier in the year.”

It’s a good bet there will be changes in Tampa Bay. The question is how many?

4. Quinn’s Revenge

The Cowboys entered the game with the NFL’s No. 5 scoring defense (20.1 points per game). The Dan Quinn-directed group had a strong start Monday, holding the Bucs and Brady to 120 total yards, including just 24 on the ground, in a scoreless first half.

That stood in contrast to the Bucs’ output during the teams’ Week 1 meeting, when Tampa Bay rushed for 152 yards, including 127 by Leonard Fournette, among its 347-yard output. On Monday, the Bucs had 52 yards on the ground, and the bulk of Brady’s 351 passing yards came after the outcome was no longer in doubt.

The Cowboys also coaxed Brady into a rare red-zone interception on the second play of the second quarter. The ageless quarterback and seven-time Super Bowl champion threw his first pick inside the opponent’s 20 since 2019 — a span of 409 passes — when Jayron Kearse picked him off in the back of the end zone.

Brady, who directed the Patriots to the largest comeback victory in Super Bowl history against Quinn’s Falcons in 2017, was under siege and off-target much of the first three quarters. The Cowboys’ pass rush extinguished any chance of another Brady miracle late in the fourth quarter, when they sacked him on third down in the red zone and nearly got him again on a play that ended with an incompletion.

Quinn is a hot name in the current coaching cycle, and his defense enhanced his resume.

5. Another Scary Monday Night Injury

Near the end of the game, Bucs receiver Russell Gage suffered an injury that required the game to be halted for several minutes, before he was placed on a backboard and taken away on a cart.

Gage, who was coming off a back injury, was thrown a pass on second down from the Dallas 19-yard line but was hit in back and neck area by Donovan Wilson. He tried to get up off the field after the incompletion but couldn’t.

Bowles said Gage suffered a concussion and was taken to a hospital to be checked out for a neck injury and observed. Bowles added that Gage had movement in his extremities.

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