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Cowboys lesson learned: Dallas flipped the switch versus the Bucs in playoff game

The Cowboys had been struggling in the last month of the season, but they flipped the switch to crush the Bucs in the Wild Card game.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He was simply masterful.
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

While there were still a couple of warts, overall the Dallas Cowboys were a dominant team against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. It was a complete reversal from the way they finished the season. They had struggled some down the stretch and the regular-season finale against the Washington Commanders was a complete and total disaster. Last week, David Howman and I discussed what the team had to do to avoid another one-and-done playoff experience. In that, we discussed how the team had to “flip the switch.”

I just worry that this is a bridge too far. With so many issues laid bare in Washington, it is hard to get all of them fixed. Some help appears to be on the way with Leighton Vander Esch and Tyler Biadasz reportedly on track to return after being out with injury and Johnathan Hankins now eligible to return from IR. Those are good, but there are too many issues with players who have been on the field. Prescott’s struggles were frankly mystifying, although the chaos on the offensive line may have a lot to do with his obvious skittishness in the pocket. The receiver corps is still going to need Noah Brown and Michael Gallup to make more contributions than they have of late and hopefully they will be able to use T.Y. Hilton more effectively and more consistently, but that is hardly assured. And the biggest concern for me is Brady versus the defensive backs. Trevon Diggs is good and DaRon Bland has vastly outplayed his draft position, but the third corner for nickel packages, the most commonly used by the Cowboys, is an open question. Nahshon Wright, Trayvon Mullen, Xavier Rhodes, and Kelvin Joseph are the available bodies, but all would worry me as Brady surveys the coverage. He is going to look for the most vulnerable place to attack. Unfortunately he is very, very good at doing that. I just can’t look at this game with any confidence that this issue will be fixed, and all the others are still questionable as well. I hate to say it, but I am not really confident Dallas can win this one.

It feels so good to have been so wrong. Howman was the one who got it right in his thinking they would rise to the occasion.

Indeed, they managed to do just about everything they had to. All Prescott did was have arguably the best performance of his career. He completed 76% of his passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions and added 24 more rushing and the fifth score of the game. After five incompletions on the first two possessions of the game, he caught on fire with eleven consecutive completions. He more than made up for a fairly mediocre running attack as the Cowboys would convert 53.8% of their third downs and be perfect in the red zone.

Now the question remains, was this an aberration or the true Dak? Lean to the latter. Whether it is making all the throws the team needs or helping avoid sacks with his mobility and ability to get the ball out under pressure, he is more often like he was on Monday night than the Commanders game. The media and fans have long given greater weight to his bad games and interceptions than to the many games he was moving the ball and scoring points. That is just part of being the quarterback of the most scrutinized and talked about team in the NFL. It is still a disservice to one of the best and most consistent quarterbacks in the league. Add in what a fierce competitor he is, and he is clearly the best shot Dallas has to continue in the playoffs by beating the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.

But of course, he cannot do it alone. Against Tampa Bay, he got a huge lift from center Tyler Biadasz, who missed the Washington game to more fully recover from his ankle problem. Instantly the protection for the quarterback took a huge leap with Biadasz making the protection calls before the snap. There were many times Prescott had a clean pocket to survey the field and complete passes that often were for chunk yards. This was against a top ten pass rush. The 49ers are better, although not necessarily by a great deal. This is a good sign for Dallas. Prescott will need time to work against a San Francisco secondary that is a good deal better than what he faced in Tampa. Biadasz was also a major factor in the offensive line not missing a beat when Jason Peters left with injury. Tyler Smith moved from guard back to tackle and Connor McGovern came in at left guard, and the offense just kept scoring points.

One issue that has been around all season is the wide receiver corps. Against the Buccaneers, tight end Dalton Schultz was still the main receiving threat with 95 yards and two touchdowns, but the WRs had significant contributions. CeeDee Lamb would have 68 yards and a score on only four catches. That is expected. But Michael Gallup had the best game since he returned from injury. He hauled in five balls, including the one that gave the Cowboys their initial first down of the game and seemed to get the fire lit. He added a remarkable touchdown where he fought a defender to try and stay inbounds, and a quirk in the rules made that irrelevant when the defender tipped the ball before Gallup caught it, making the latter an eligible receiver again even if he had gone out of bounds. Quirky, yes, but we will take it.

Noah Brown and T.Y. Hilton only had two catches apiece, but they are providing the offense with good options when they need three WRs on the field. With the way the tight ends threaten the defense, the passing game can produce with that, and it certainly did. Remember that Kellen Moore took his foot off the gas in the fourth quarter. The lead was too big to have to keep scoring and running the clock became the priority.

The offense was great, but a bigger overall improvement came from the defense. For several weeks that unit has struggled stopping both the run and the pass. What they gave us against the Buccaneers was the dominant defense that helped carry the team through the five weeks Cooper Rush had to fill in for Prescott. They held Tampa Bay to just 52 yards on the ground. That was affected by the big lead as the Bucs became one-dimensional trying to catch up with Brady’s arm. But the way they bottled up the running game was a big part of how that lead was built.

Just like for the offensive line, getting the guy who calls the signals back was huge. LB Leighton Vander Esch returned as well, and the results were evident. Not only was he getting everyone in the right place for run defense, he was blitzing and dropping into coverage effectively, coming close to both a sack and a pick of Brady. The future HOF quarterback padded his stats after Dallas went into something of a prevent to help burn the clock, but he still only completed 53% of his passes and had the interception snagged by Jayron Kearse that killed their first scoring threat. Dallas would then march relentlessly down the field to build the lead and the offense would go on to score touchdowns on four consecutive drives.

There was reason to expect the run defense to be able to handle a bottom ten attack with Vander Esch back. The main worry coming into the game was the short-handed secondary facing Brady. He may be aging, but he is still a dangerous passer. He was third in the league in yards passing and eighth in touchdowns with only nine interceptions this season. Historically he has been even better in the playoffs, something Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were ironically extolling just before he threw the interception in the end zone.

When it mattered, the secondary stood up just fine to Brady’s passing. Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland have earned our confidence, but one of the big issues coming into this game was how they would fill the nickel spot. The surprising answer was not recently signed Xavier Rhodes but Israel Mukuamu, who is supposed to be a safety. Instead he did an excellent job covering receivers and was one of the stars of the game. His two pass breakups are even more impressive given that he only played 45% of the snaps. Some packages didn’t utilize the third corner, and Rhodes was in 29% of the time.

The coverage was greatly aided by a pass rush that put constant pressure on Brady. He is much less effective when he doesn’t have a clean pocket. It was often dirty and chaotic for him. Several incompletions were direct results. That was more important than the two sacks in the second half.

Coordinators Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn also deserve bouquets. Moore had open receivers running all over the field for Prescott. There were times they had a ridiculous amount of space to work in, including Lamb’s touchdown and Jake Ferguson’s 34-yard catch and run, the team’s longest gain of the night. Quinn was similarly masterful.

Of course, a surprising issue emerged in the game. Brett Maher, who was so good in the regular season, missed a stunning four consecutive extra points. It is hard to say what the team can do besides hope he works through things on his own. Signing another kicker to replace him is also risky given the lack of options. Clearly this could be the difference in a close game. Maher was not the only one having issues, as Noah Brown failed to hang onto an onside kick, briefly giving the Buccaneers hope for another epic Brady comeback. Fortunately that fizzled quickly. Still, John Fassel has his work cut out for him in the abbreviated week of practice.

Another less glaring but still present problem is the sluggish running game. There are still far too many failed first down runs. One of the best things Ezekiel Elliott does is get first downs on third and very short, but even he was stymied on an attempt from the Tampa one-yard line. Moore and Prescott combined to get an easy score on fourth down, but it is hard to deny that Tony Pollard, who had 77 yards rushing and 12 more receiving, is the best running back they have. Elliott will hopefully contribute some good plays against San Francisco, but his future beyond this postseason is going to be one that the ownership must consider long and carefully.

While concerning, these issues were well masked by the size and importance of the win. The Cowboys broke “curses” in getting their first road playoff win since 1992. Further, some of the things that created this win are going to be vital if they are to get back-to-back playoff wins for the first time since the 1995 season. Never underestimate how much of a challenge the 49ers are going to be in their own stadium. But don’t discount just how well Dallas flipped that switch to advance.

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