It is no secret at all that the Dallas Cowboys have had very little playoff success in over two decades, so it’s understandable that even in a season where qualifying for the playoffs was merely the first goal, expecting this team to go further has fans nervous for Super Wild Card weekend. All that stands in the way of the Cowboys and the divisional round is a road game against a team that’s beaten them two seasons in a row, led by the greatest quarterback of all time with an undefeated head-to-head record against them.
As is the case with any regular season game, there isn’t one set path to winning in the playoffs, something the Cowboys have been learning the hard way since their last Super Bowl appearance in 1996. The right mix of luck, health, and elite quarterback play are all factors, and with the way Dak Prescott played in Week 18 at the Commanders, the Cowboys may need all the luck they can get to finally knock off Brady. A bounce-back performance from Prescott to keep a streak of rebounding from each loss with a win isn’t all the Cowboys need, but they have team health going for them too with several key players back on the practice field.
All of Cowboys Nation wants to forget the team that took the field last in the nation’s capital ever existed, and come Monday in Tampa, that truly might be the case. The Cowboys stars always seem to shine brightest against top competition, with help on the way in the form of Leighton Vander Esch, Tyler Biadasz, and Jonathan Hankins.
Vander Esch led the team in tackles in the regular season meeting against the Bucs, a key piece to a Cowboys defense that still surrendered 152 yards on the ground. This was the second most rushing yards by Tampa all season long; they are a team that’s struggled mightily to balance the offense and only surpassing 100 yards three times. Having Hankins back only further bolsters the Cowboys run defense, and allows them to commit the numbers to coverage they’ll need to deal with Brady’s top targets Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
The chess match between Dan Quinn’s defense and Brady will be the top thing to watch in this Monday night matchup. Against a quarterback in complete control of where every defender is on the field, the Bucs have an advantage stretching the field against the Cowboys safeties if they can catch them in deep coverage. However, it was the short passing game on the opposite side of the field to Trevon Diggs that led to Brady’s 18-27 passing performance against the Cowboys in week one. This 67% completion percentage was easily his highest of the season, but the Dallas defense held these methodical drives to four field goals, only giving up a late touchdown to Evans.
The last we saw of the Cowboys defense, they were making Sam Howell look like the future of the Commanders franchise in his first career start. Adding two veteran players like Vander Esch and Hankins back not only gives them more of the edge they’ll need to respond in a win-or-go-home game, but gives Quinn the versatility to throw different looks at the G.O.A.T while trying to get more pressure off the edge from Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. DaRon Bland being healthy also gives the Bucs another defender to prepare for, with the ability to contest underneath throws and make plays on the ball.
Parsons had two sacks in the first meeting with the Bucs, both coming off the right side working against Tristan Wirfs. Parsons was able to get these one-on-ones as Osa Odighizuwa drew a double team and pressured Brady up the middle on both plays. If there were any positives for the Cowboys defense against the Commanders, it was the play of their defensive interior with Odighizuwa and Carlos Watkins. It may take an all-time game from this front four to advance the Cowboys past Monday night, and that means all hands on deck - including Jonathan Hankins getting healthy at the perfect time.
As for the offense, the immediate takeaway from the forgetful Commanders loss was that the offensive line needs help. At least at center, they’ll get this help with Tyler Biadasz on track to return. It was easy to see early in the Week 18 game that Prescott didn’t have the confidence in the pocket, and as his team fell behind it led to even more forced throws downfield. Just how aggressive the Cowboys are on early downs against the Bucs, needing to run away from Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks, is a key to the game coming off a loss where Prescott couldn’t regularly convert third and longs through the air.
The Cowboys haven’t gotten the same movement in the run game without Terence Steele at right tackle, but at least with Biadasz back Prescott can trust the front of the pocket, with hopes his return helps both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard get to the second level more consistently. This is a game where check down throws to the likes of Pollard and Dalton Schultz need to be looked at as extensions of the Cowboys run game to keep them on schedule. At Washington, this part of the offense went missing. Getting back to an offensive line pairing that’s played consistent snaps as a unit can only help here.
In the grind that is a 17-game NFL season, the same Cowboys and Bucs teams that took the field in the season opener are hardly the ones millions of viewers will see in the final game of this weekend. The 0-1 Cowboys that failed to score a touchdown, even with Dak Prescott on the field, had a long way to go to prove themselves as playoff-bound, but now that they’re in for the second straight season it’s time for Mike McCarthy’s team to take another step.
The Bucs defense looked dominant in that win, but they struggled through division play to win a historically bad NFC South at 8-9. The only single-digit win team that Brady has ever led to the playoffs likes their chances to make something of this season still, as does a hopeful Cowboys team looking to regain midseason form and play like the 12-5 contender they are.