The time is now. After another season filled with both excitement and trepidation, the Dallas Cowboys are right back at it again with a chance to change their two-and-a-half-decade-long image of just not getting it done. Standing in their way is a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that won the NFC South despite having a losing record. In fact, they haven’t had a winning record in over three months, and of their eight wins this year, only one of them came against an opponent that has double-digit wins this season.
That opponent was the Cowboys.
Despite the Cowboys having four more wins than the Bucs, this game still has an unnerving feel to it. Maybe it’s that Tom Brady has always had the Cowboys' number winning all seven of his career contests against Dallas. Maybe it’s the uninspiring performances the Cowboys have put up in recent weeks. Or maybe it’s just that we’re so used to disappointment come this time of year.
Whatever it is, this game should be filled with a bunch of stuff that will make our heart rate go up. Here are five things to watch when the Cowboys play the Buccaneers on Monday night.
1. BRADY PLAYING CHESS
Nobody has thrown the ball more than Tom Brady this season. In fact, in each of the last two seasons, Brady has had new career highs as he’s eclipsed 700 attempts in both of them. This Bucs offense lives and dies on the arm of Brady as the veteran quarterback meticulously dissects opposing defenses.
With the Cowboys having some vulnerabilities in the secondary, look for Brady to find them and repeatedly exploit them. The shifty Chris Godwin is going to be challenging for rookie corner DaRon Bland. The ball-hawking Mike Evans will invite deep shots and end zone targets against Trevon Diggs. And you better believe the Cowboys' weakest corner, Nahshon Wright (or Xavier Rhodes), is going to have his hands full as Brady looks for ways to take full advantage. Look for a lot of short throws where the Bucs receivers can gain yards after the catch as they catch the Cowboys defenders out of position.
2. DAK PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS
For Tampa Bay to win, we all know Brady must have a great game, but the same is also true for the Cowboys and Dak Prescott. So much has been made about Dak’s play as of late and some of the questionable throws he has made. If the interceptions continue, the Cowboys are going to be in trouble.
Prescott needs to remind people how good he really is. There have been instances this year where he’s looked as sharp as anyone in the league. The team needs Prescott to be decisive with his reads and on target with his throws. He also needs to be willing to cut loose with his legs. There is no tomorrow in the playoffs unless the team emerges victorious, so there is no need to play it safe. If the Bucs defense sits back at the chains or the Cowboys' offensive line starts to break down, then Prescott needs to be ready to take off running.
3. EARLY DOWN SUCCESS
Whether it’s Brady or Prescott, the quarterback most likely to thrive will be the one who is put in favorable down and distances. This means winning on early downs is crucial to keeping the drives goings. Creating manageable third downs, or maybe even not needing a third down at times, will keep their offense out of trouble.
When Dallas has the ball, that means avoiding bad running plays on first down. Kellen Moore needs to find creative ways to have early down success versus expecting this middling offensive line to overpower the Bucs' defense in the trenches. Bootlegs, short outs, quick passes underneath, and running plays that offer a little misdirection need to be a part of their game plan instead of that slow-death running attack they’ve been producing as of late.
Conversely, when the Cowboys are on defense, they have to remain disciplined and win their assignments. If they find themselves struggling to stop the run or getting beat on the edge with jet sweeps, they are going to make it very easy for Brady. Additionally, if the Cowboys panic and are forced to deploy more resources to stop the run, they won’t have the arsenal to pressure the quarterback, and that’s when things become very dangerous. If they give Brady too much time, the Cowboys' defense will be in big trouble.
4. GAME-CHANGING MOMENTS
The Cowboys finished the regular season with 33 takeaways, the most by any team this season. But surprisingly, they have lost the turnover battle six times this season, including each of the last two games. This is not the time when we want to see loose balls caroming off a receiver’s hands or blindside strips of Dak Prescott. Nor is it the time to see a crucial pass interference penalty by a Cowboys defender who has his back turned to the ball. For Dallas to win this one, they are going to need to be on the right side of some of these big-game moments.
5. WE WILL KNOW RIGHT AWAY WHO WILL WIN THIS ONE
The way we see it, there are two possible outcomes in this game. Either (A) this Cowboys team is clearly superior to the Bucs and will re-assert the dominance they showed in the middle of the season or (B) the Cowboys will be sluggish from the start and spend all 60 minutes in a dogfight. Clearly, one of those scenarios is better than the other.
We will learn real quick which of these things are going to happen. If for any reason this Cowboys team decides to play the long game and keep Tampa in it or have to play from behind, it’s not going to end well. As we mentioned before, the Cowboys haven’t fared well in close playoff games since the turn of the century.