The time has finally arrived to find out what this edition of the Dallas Cowboys football team is made of. Yes, reaching the playoffs in the NFL is an accomplishment in itself, and shouldn’t be easily pushed aside. But what the Cowboys do now will shape our perception of the team for the future. Just look at last year’s team. They had a very similar season to this one, but what we all really remember is that first-round playoff exit. It has colored everything that has happened since.
Dallas enters this Wild Card game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the favorites by 2.5 points according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Even though the Cowboys are on the road, they are still thought of as the better team. Considering they are 12-5 on the year and the Buccaneers are 8-9, that makes some sense.
The Cowboys and Buccaneers have played twice over the past two seasons, each one a Bucs win. Tampa Bay defeated the Cowboys to start the 2021 season, and repeated the trick to start the 2022 season. The Cowboys have played the Bucs twice in the playoffs, winning both games, but that was long ago. In 1982, Dallas beat Tampa Bay 38-0 in a Divisional Round game, and in 1983 they once again beat the Bucs 30-17 in a Wild Card game. Overall the Cowboys lead the series with Tampa Bay 15-6.
The Cowboys have played in 13 Wild Card playoff games in their history and have been very mediocre in them. They have a 7-6 record in those games. Even worse, they have a 1-3 record in Wild Card games played on the road. Overall the Cowboys will play their 65th playoff game on Monday, and that’s the most in NFL history. Unfortunately, given their futility in the playoffs since the 90s, and some other fallow periods, they only have 35 wins, fourth most all time.
After last week, all eyes will be on Dak Prescott to see if he can have a bounce-back game. Prescott served up one the worst games in his career last week. The Cowboys quarterback has a streak going in the playoffs; he has a rushing and a passing touchdown in three straight playoff games. The only other players to accomplish that are Steve Young and Patrick Mahomes.
In Prescott’s career against the Bucs, he’s completed 73% of his passes and has 977 yards plus four touchdowns in four games. He’s also added two rushing touchdowns in those games. His big game was the 2021 season opener when he had 403 yards passing plus three touchdowns. CeeDee Lamb went off in that 2021 game with 133 yards and a score.
A Cowboys player who might surprise us with a big game is T.Y. Hilton. He has experience in nine playoff games during his time with the Colts. In those games, he has caught 47 passes for 781 yards plus three touchdowns. But it his yards per catch that is really eye-opening. He owns the fourth best playoff mark since 2012 in that category with a 16.6 yard average.
The Cowboys defense led the league in takeaways this year with 33 after leading the league last year with 34. That is the first time a team has been the league leader back-to-back in that category since the Pittsburgh Steelers did it from 1972-74. Tom Brady is pretty good about not throwing interceptions with only 10 on the season, but the Bucs had 12 fumbles on the year which was tied for third-most in the league. The Cowboys led the league with 17 fumble recoveries on the year, so fumbles may play a sneaky big role in this game.
Micah Parsons led the NFL in QB pressure with 90 according to Pro Football Focus, creating pressure on 19.3% of his pass rushes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Tom Brady perennially has one of the fastest release times among quarterbacks. But he also had one of the lowest intended yards per pass attempt in 2022 at 6.7 yards. By comparison, Prescott averaged 8.2 intended yards per attempt. The Cowboys will need to crowd the line of scrimmage against the Bucs receivers to force Brady to hold the ball a little longer, allowing Parsons and company to get home.
One of those corners who will need to do the job is DaRon Bland. If the rookie gets an interception in the playoffs, he will be the first Cowboys rookie to do so since Larry Brown way back in 1991.
The stage is set. It’s the GOAT and Co. versus the Dak Attack. There’s nothing left to do but play the game.