Mike McCarthy’s message to the Cowboys before their second straight Wild Card appearance was for this current team to not worry about the franchise’s past, like their last road playoff win coming after the 1992 season. The more pressing concern going into Monday night may have been their 0-7 career record against Tom Brady, including two regular-season losses in the last two years.
The Cowboys have been at their best this season in games where they have something to prove, playing up to top competition and consistently proving they belong among the league’s best despite chasing the Eagles for the entire regular season. Now, they’re the third and final NFC East team to punch their ticket to Divisional Weekend.
The stage couldn’t get much bigger for the Cowboys on Monday night, and they slayed the dragon of beating Brady by forcing him into a career-high 66 passing attempts in a comeback effort. Dallas led 31-6 in the fourth quarter in a near-flawless display of complementary football, and earned a rematch with the 49ers with a 31-14 win.
Here are a few notes on how the Cowboys were able to control this game from start to finish, setting up another primetime game as they’ll play at San Francisco on Sunday night.
- The weak spot on the Bucs offensive line was on the interior, where Brady has historically struggled when pressured up the middle. Dan Quinn’s defense - in a bit of a revenge game given Quinn’s Super Bowl loss to Brady with the Falcons - did a good job attacking this with Dorance Armstrong and Micah Parsons rushing from different positions.
Having Leighton Vander Esch back at linebacker made a huge difference in this game, as he stepped up against the run while also helping in coverage for a defense that frustrated Brady by taking away any deep throws and contesting anything underneath. This trust in the secondary gave the Cowboys pass rush all the confidence they needed to make the difference in this game, buying time for the offense to find themselves by forcing two three and outs on the Bucs’ first two possessions, and ending the third with a Jayron Kearse end zone interception. Despite 66 passing attempts, it was hard to find a throw from Brady where multiple Cowboys defenders weren’t contesting the pass, daring Brady to consistently layer throws under pressure.
- Speaking of Kearse, the Cowboys safeties were one of the most noticeable strengths on the defense all night. Kearse and Donovan Wilson have been great close to the line of scrimmage this season, but when defending Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, there was opportunity for the Bucs to expose them in coverage. Whether it was because Brady didn’t have a clean pocket, or the Cowboys cornerbacks stepping up on the outside, Tampa Bay never found any rhythm in the pass game, playing right into these safeties strengths.
Wilson was a force in the box with big stops in the open field, and Kearse’s interception was Brady’s first red zone turnover as a Buccaneer. The Cowboys only led 6-0 at the time, but took the ball 90 yards on a 15-play drive, their longest of the night, to build the lead to 12 and put the pressure firmly on the home team. The speed and edge this defense played with for four quarters on the road had been missing for weeks now, but they’ll need a repeat performance at the 49ers to keep this playoff run alive.
- The Cowboys started the offensive line they felt gave them the best look in pass protection, which was Jason Peters at left tackle with Tyler Smith at left guard. Only having this starting five for the first half, Peters was injured forcing Smith to tackle and Connor McGovern to left guard, Dallas found something in the run game with this unit. To make up for the lack of movement they’ve gotten off the right side, Smith and McGovern were pulled across the line to set the edge regularly, and Tony Pollard took full advantage with over five yards a carry.
The Bucs defense is stout in the middle with Akiem Hicks and Vita Vea playing their first game together at defensive tackle in some time, but Kellen Moore forced their linebackers and secondary to make tackles on the perimeter. This opened up Prescott to move the pocket and use his legs more than we’ve seen in recent weeks, attacking the middle of the field against a Tampa defense that needed to commit numbers to stopping the run.
The Cowboys offense came a long way from their week one loss to the Bucs in this game, where the Tampa defense became just the latest to say post-game they knew what was coming from Moore’s scheme. Keeping these second-level defenders on their heels by mixing the power run game with layup throws for Prescott to Dalton Schultz and CeeDee Lamb gave Moore complete control of the game against Todd Bowles’ defense.