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Pregame Shuffle: Cowboys at Buccaneers (Wild Card round)

The Cowboys look to beat Tom Brady for the first time in franchise history in their upcoming wild card playoff game.

SPORTS-FBN-BUCS-COWBOYS-1-FT Yffy Yossifor/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Just as it began, so too shall it end. Well, for one of these teams, at least. For both the Cowboys and Buccaneers, their seasons began against each other. Now, their postseasons begin with a rematch, this time in Tampa Bay.

When all these players walked off the field in that last contest, Cowboys fans were preparing for a long, miserable season after the initial fear of losing Dak Prescott to a significant throwing hand injury. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers had man-handled the Cowboys in every way, and looked to be just as strong as they were in their previous two seasons with Tom Brady under center.

Oh, how things change. Dallas ripped off four consecutive wins with Cooper Rush under center and Prescott returned in Week 7 to a Cowboys team still in contention. The Cowboys went 8-3 with Prescott from then on, with two of those losses coming in overtime, and they were playing for the NFC’s top seed right up until the end. Mike McCarthy became the first Cowboys coach since the 90’s to make the postseason in consecutive seasons and to win 12 games in consecutive seasons.

The Buccaneers, on the other hand, came crashing back to Earth. Brady battled off-field issues and struggled to overcome injuries all across the offensive line, and the Buccaneers offense became a shell of its former self. Tampa Bay never won more than two games in a row this year, but they managed to beat the Panthers in the penultimate game of the season to clinch a miserable NFC South title. They now limp into a home playoff game with an 8-9 record, making them just the seventh team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record. The last team to do so was the Washington Football Team in 2020, a team that lost to the (eventual Super Bowl champion) Buccaneers in the Wild Card round.

As of right now, the Cowboys are a 2.5 point favorite over the Buccaneers, and it’s easy to see why. The Cowboys have been a really good team for the vast majority of the year, and they’ve had significant stretches of dominance from their offense, defense, and special teams. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has scored 30 points just twice all year and they are 1-7 on the season when the defense gives up three or more touchdowns. On paper, this seems like a simple win for the Cowboys.

But these games aren’t played on paper, and the paper can’t account for the unstoppable force that is Playoff Brady. Between the Patriots and the Buccaneers, Brady has made the playoffs in 19 seasons; only three of those seasons has he failed to win a game. It’s incredibly hard to knock Brady out of the playoffs. And for the Cowboys, it’s hard to beat him in general; Brady is 7-0 against the Cowboys throughout his career.

That said, if there’s a time for this team to finally get one on Brady, it’s this year. The Buccaneers offense is bad, ranking 16th in offensive DVOA; no other NFC playoff team ranks lower than that. Brady has regressed too, posting his lowest touchdown total and QBR since his final season in New England. But the run game has been especially putrid, ranking 30th in rushing DVOA and dead last in yards per carry.

That’s led to Brady setting career highs in both pass attempts and completions, which makes his regression all the more concerning. The offensive line has had their fair share of struggles, ranking 25th in pass block win rate and 31st in run block win rate, but Brady’s managed to avoid pressure as he has his whole career. No quarterback is getting the ball out faster than Brady, and his 13.2% pressure rate is the lowest in the NFL.

The issue is that Brady is getting the ball out so fast that he doesn’t have the time to go deep with regularity. Brady is averaging the fourth fewest air yards per attempt, and his receivers aren’t making up for it, as the Buccaneers are tied for the fifth fewest yards after the catch per reception. It’s not hard to see why this offense has struggled to score all year.

The defense, though, is what’s kept Tampa Bay in games. They’ve been solid, but not impressive, most of the year. Ranked 13th in defensive DVOA, Tampa Bay is 15th in pass defense DVOA and 13th in run defense DVOA. They’re tied with Dallas for the third fewest yards allowed per play and are 11th in defensive EPA/play on third downs. In short, they’re good at getting off the field, even though the Buccaneers are in the bottom third of the league in takeaways.

Making things even better for the Cowboys is that reinforcements are coming. Tyler Biadasz is expected to return for this game at center, where his absence was felt in a big way against the Commanders. Defensively, Johnathan Hankins and Leighton Vander Esch are both expected to return from injury as well, while all signs are pointing to Xavier Rhodes seeing the field to some extent in this game.

There are an awful lot of things that seem to be trending the Cowboys’ way for this game, and the oddsmakers seem to be buying into that. But this franchise has become accustomed to two things this century: coming up short in the playoffs, and losing to Tom Brady. This game offers Dallas a chance to do both of those things at once, or slay both dragons with one sword.

Simply put, the Cowboys need this one. Mike McCarthy cannot come away with zero playoff wins in three years, and this team desperately needs to atone for last year’s Wild Card loss. Against Brady, it won’t be easy. But the playoffs have never been easy, and this is the time for these Cowboys to take the hard road and emerge victorious. All of the resiliency that this team has shown this season has prepared them for this moment. Can they come through when it matters most?

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