There were so many narratives that were brought up before the Dallas Cowboys administered a convincing 31-14 beating to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They had never beaten a Tom Brady quarterbacked team. They had experienced repeated frustration in the playoffs for a quarter of a century, especially in away games. Dak Prescott and the defense were both struggling in the final games of the regular season. They were playing on grass. There was even the blue jersey curse.
None of that mattered as Dallas looked like a legitimate and dangerous playoff contender. Now the Cowboys advance to face the San Francisco 49ers. That is a different level of challenge, as San Francisco is the hottest team in the league, and Tampa Bay got into the playoffs with a losing record. But there was a lot in this game to encourage hopes that this playoff journey may have a bit longer to run.
After so much anticipation, this game could not have gotten off to a more sluggish start. With the Cowboys starting, neither team could even get a first down in the first four possessions of the game, with Dallas having negative yards gained. On their third drive, they finally got a first down on a 15-yard completion to Michael Gallup, and that seemed to wake them up. Aided by a rare roughing the passer call for Dak Prescott, they got to the 22 of Tampa on an 18-yard Tony Pollard run. Then Prescott found Dalton Schultz in the end zone for the first score of the game. The early lead was marred by Brett Maher pushing the extra point try wide, but the spirits of Dallas fans got a big lift.
The Buccaneers started showing some life of their own after the ensuing kickoff. Like Prescott, Tom Brady started finding receivers to move the ball. His best play was when he evaded pressure to then flip the ball to Chris Godwin for a first and goal at the five-yard line. But just after the beginning of the second quarter, Micah Parsons batted a ball that he almost picked off, and then Brady was picked off in the end zone by Jayron Kearse.
The offense took the gift and drove down the field. With a little up tempo, they go to the Tampa Bay 40, where Prescott found Jake Ferguson with a ton of green space in front of him. Ferguson got 35 yards to set up first and goal at the five. A holding call set them back to the 14. Three plays later Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed from the one yard line, leaving them with a fourth down there. Mike McCarthy didn’t take long to decide to go for it and this time Prescott kept the ball himself, rolling to his left to walk untouched in for the score. A bit worryingly, Maher missed his second extra point attempt, pushing it wide to the right just like the first one.
The Buccaneers got one first down, but faced a fourth and three at their own 47. Todd Bowles has taken a lot of criticism for being too conservative this season, and he made the cautious call here, electing to punt. After a fair catch at their own nine-yard line, Prescott and the offense had 3:32 to work with before halftime. Prescott was on fire by this stage of the game, completing eleven straight passes at one point. With both his arm and his legs, he drove the team down the field, and on second and four he rolled right again and found Schultz for his second touchdown of the game.
The Cowboys now had a three score lead, but it was 18-0 because Maher missed his third extra point, this time hooking it to the left. It was a sudden concern with no ready explanation. Further, on the drive Jason Peters left the field with some kind of injury, forcing Tyler Smith out to LT again and putting Connor McGovern back in at LG.
The Buccaneers failed to do anything with just :27 on the clock before half. They got the ball to start the second half, but once again the Dallas defense was strong and forced another three and out. The Cowboys were dominating time of possession partly because they kept getting the ball back from Tampa Bay. The secondary, which was a real source of concern coming into the game, really was doing their job, and the defense did not let the run get on track.
Dallas had a long field to work with, the punt going out of bounds at their own 14, but the offense was still red hot. With a pair of 26-yard receptions from Shultz and CeeDee Lamb, and a Pollard run, they had first and goal at the four. Two plays later, Michael Gallup managed to tightrope on the back end zone line to haul in the third Prescott touchdown pass of the game. However, Maher continued to be unable to get the ball between the uprights, and the lead was 24-0.
Brady was still feeling pressure on the next possession, but found Chris Godwin for first down yardage. However, the ball popped out as he was going down and was initially ruled a fumble recovered by Israel Mukuamu and returned, but the call was reversed. Despite that this may have been the best game of his young career. However, an unnecessary roughness call put the Buccaneers back to the 14. Brady was stymied on three consecutive passes, looking off target and affected by the pressure from the pass rush. They had no sacks, but were still having a very positive influence on the game pushing the pocket and moving Brady off his spot. The defense was really the big factor in the game, only letting Tampa Bay have one good drive through the third quarter. Meanwhile the only place the offense was struggling was on early down runs, but even those started to come alive a bit as Elliott got three of good runs to start their next drive. Then he worked with Schultz to get across midfield. The Dallas tight ends were the most effective weapons all game. They finally stalled and Bryan Anger had to make his first punt since early in the first quarter.
It pinned the Bucs at their own five. However, Kearse, who was excellent to that point, was injured and helped off the field, bringing recent acquisition Xavier Rhodes in for his first snaps of the game. Tampa Bay started to find some success going up tempo and marched into Dallas territory and Brady found Julio Jones in the end zone to put their team on the board as time ran out in the third quarter. They elected to go for two to try and make it a one score game, but it wasn’t there, leaving the Cowboys leading 24-6.
KaVontae Turpin helped the offense with a return to the 35 on the kickoff that opened the fourth quarter. This time, they quickly got inside what is nominally easy field goal range for Maher, but on fourth and four in the red zone, McCarthy decided to leave it in the hands of the offense. It paid off big time as Prescott found a wide open Lamb for an 18-yard touchdown. Maher finally got of the schneid and Dallas had a 31-6 lead with 10:13 left to play.
Dallas went soft with their coverage and Tampa Bay finally started to move down the field, but even Brady could not muster the magic to overcome a 25-point lead with less than ten minutes to play. The matter was largely decided when Johnathan Hankins, just activated off IR, got a sack in the red zone and the Cowboys would take over with 6:20 to play and looking to mostly run time off the clock to get to the final whistle. The Buccaneers would get a garbage time touchdown and two-point conversion to make the final score look a bit better, but it didn’t change the degree to which Dallas controlled this game.
One thing that the broadcast showed was that the referees were keeping the flags in their pockets on what looked like holding and interference calls, mostly benefiting Dallas. That helped them keep the flags to a minimum, if perhaps a bit unearned. But in spite of that, the Cowboys clearly outplayed the Buccaneers in every aspect of the game except that Maher thing. There were some troubling injuries for Dallas along the way, and we hope for good news on that front. as well as for Russell Gage of Tampa Bay who had to be carted off the field late.
For now, let’s bask in the glow of this win. It was earned.