They had never beaten Tom Brady. They hadn’t won a playoff game on the road since the 1992 season. They were 1-4 on grass this year. They had never won a playoff game wearing their navy blue jerseys. Did I mention Tom Brady?
All the historical trends were working against the Cowboys for this game, and Mike McCarthy acknowledged as much. He showed the team some baby pictures from the very few active players who were alive when the team last won a road playoff game as a way of telling the players they are not responsible for what came before them; this team was only responsible for what comes next.
Clearly, the message was well received. The Cowboys walked into Tampa Bay and absolutely dominated the Buccaneers in every facet except for the extra point kicking game. It was easily the most complete game that this team has had since that Vikings game, which is something fans have been clamoring for more of ever since. There had been glimpses of that team since then - the record-setting fourth quarter against the Colts comes to mind - but it had been a while since Dallas truly dominated someone.
Well, on the biggest stage of the year (so far), the Cowboys found their mojo again. The defense had Brady looking lost, the offense took everything the Buccaneers were giving them, and perhaps most importantly, Dak Prescott was balling out while holding onto the ball. Simply put, Mike McCarthy got his team ready to play their best ball and it paid off in a big way.
While everyone is (rightfully) gushing about Prescott, or the very welcome contributions of Leighton Vander Esch or Israel Mukuamu, McCarthy also rediscovered his identity as a coach. McCarthy has generally been a pretty aggressive coach, unafraid to go for it on fourth down and bury opponents as much as possible. But this season saw McCarthy pivot away from that tendency somewhat.
In McCarthy’s first two years in Dallas, the Cowboys were fourth in the NFL in optimal go decisions on fourth down, meaning they went for it when they should have. But this season, the Cowboys fell to 15th in the league. Initially, the belief was that McCarthy grew more conservative as a result of not having his QB1 available, but the coach continued to punt (at times, literally) in pretty clear go situations.
Not the case on Monday night. McCarthy, who apparently shaved his beard for the playoffs, returned to the aggressive coach of yesteryear. Dallas only had two attempts on fourth down, though that was mostly due to their astonishingly high 53.8% third down conversion rate. Still, McCarthy aced both decisions. In fact, both fourth down attempts resulted in touchdowns.
The first such decision came on fourth and goal at the one-yard line, and the Cowboys were only up 6-0. McCarthy understood something few coaches have throughout the years: you don’t beat Brady with field goals. As a matter of fact, Dallas didn’t even attempt a single field goal all night. Instead, McCarthy opted to go for the touchdown, and Prescott perfectly executed a great play call from Kellen Moore to score with his legs.
The second decision came late in the game, and likely didn’t affect win probability numbers all that much with how much of a lead Dallas had. But again, McCarthy was back to his mentality of just burying teams and not letting the foot off the gas. He didn’t care that the Cowboys led 24-6 at the start of the fourth quarter; he just saw Brady score a touchdown, and there’s too many games where that ends poorly for the team Brady isn’t playing for.
McCarthy opted to go for it on fourth and four, even though Brett Maher had started onto the field to kick the field goal. Once again, a great call from Moore was beautifully executed, and CeeDee Lamb was as wide open as you can be for an easy touchdown toss. Just as quickly as the Buccaneers had begun to pry the door open, the Cowboys slammed it shut again.
There were so many things that went right in this game for Dallas, but McCarthy’s pivot back to his signature aggression and sharp decision making was a big part of it. Of course, it helps when the quarterback is dealing like Prescott was, but McCarthy gave the Cowboys just one more reason to feel confident as they now transition to facing the team that eliminated them from the postseason a year ago. They’ll need more of the same from McCarthy, as well as the rest of the team, to truly atone for that loss.