House of the Dragon was a hit for some who are fans of Game of Thrones. The Dallas Cowboys’ win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a hit for almost every fan in Cowboys nation. Both contained an effort to slay dragons.
While the dragons were not in physical form for the Cowboys, they were certainly waiting for them coming into Wild Card weekend. Dallas has not won on the road since the 1992 season, they have never beaten Tom Brady, and there were a few curses around the navy jerseys and playing on grass. All of those were conquered in a matter of 60 minutes.
None of that could be possible without a total team effort, but these ten Cowboys stood above the rest to help punch the ticket heading to San Francisco.
Here is the roster power ranking after the Cowboys’ win over the Buccaneers.
10. Tyler Biadasz, C
The minute Tyler Biadasz exited the Thursday night matchup with the Tennessee Titans, his absence was felt. The Cowboys were not themselves on offense for the rest of that game, and it carried over into the season finale against the Washington Commanders.
In training camp, there were questions about why there was no competition for Biadasz as the starting center. Once again, the coaching staff proved to be smarter than the masses. Biadasz has elevated his play and has fixed many of the problems plaguing him in the past.
Defensive tackle Vita Vea beat him up to start the game, but give a lot of credit to Biadasz for doing all he could coming back from a high ankle sprain. Don’t forget how he also helps check the protections at the line and helped neutralize Tampa Bay’s pass rush.
9. Tony Pollard, RB
No question that giving the ball more to Tony Pollard gives Dallas the best chance for a deep playoff run. He finished the game with 77 yards on 15 carries and had explosive runs to set up the Cowboys’ offense in the red zone.
The biggest complaint from the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers a season ago was that Kellen Moore never got the ball to either CeeDee Lamb or Tony Pollard. Outside of Lamb, No. 20 is the most explosive player the Cowboys have on offense.
With Pollard getting more touches than Ezekiel Elliott against the Bucs, Moore is willing to change his ways and do what works best. If Dallas can beat the 49ers on Sunday, Pollard will need to be the featured back.
8. Tyron Smith, RT
Tyron Smith switching to right tackle shows that even future Hall of Fame players can look human too. Smith has undoubtedly needed an adjustment period to get re-acclimated with a position he hasn’t played since 2011, but his tape against Tampa Bay might have been his best all season.
Dak Prescott played great, but it was only possible with the help of his offensive line, which is why a few of those names are listed here. The eighth spot was either going to be for Zack Martin or Smith. Both deserve the spot, but Tyron Smith gets the edge simply for playing out of position and showing his best version when it mattered most in the playoffs.
Nick Bosa tends to move around the defensive line and could be facing both Smith’s at the tackle position. Coming off his best game of the season, fans should feel confident that Tyron can handle anything the 49ers’ defense throws at him.
7. Isreal Mukuamu, S
The following two names appearing on the top ten list go hand-in-hand with each other. Isreal Mukuamu has developed into a better player because he has a mentor like Jayron Kearse.
Young man a damn player no question @IsraelMukuamu 6’4 getting busy in that slot— Jayron Kearse (@Jayronkearse8) January 17, 2023
Mukuamu in the slot was the defense’s best-kept secret. Dan Quinn talked about how he was still trying to figure out the best formula at the cornerback position after losing Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown. Quinn decided to make Trayvon Mullen and Nahshon Wright inactive for the game and implement a heavy safety scheme.
Kearse or Mukuamu would slide down to the slot corner position moving DaRon Bland and Trevon Diggs to the outside corners. The former sixth-round draft pick has experience playing the cornerback position in college at South Carolina and told Jerry Jones he could be the best on the team. The way Mukuamu handled receiver Chris Godwin, it’s tough to argue with him.
Jerry Jones said Israel Mukuamu told him: “I’m gonna be the best corner you got.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 2, 2021
Stephen Jones jumps in during the news conference: “We had a different plan for him, though.” https://t.co/GkC1ZepYc7
6. Jayron Kearse, S
Outside of Micah Parsons and Diggs, Jayron Kearse is an MVP of the Cowboys’ defense. Not only does Quinn trust him to help make the calls and get everyone lined up, but he brings an attitude the rest of the team feeds off of.
His interception of Tom Brady in the endzone helped change the game for Dallas. After the Cowboys scored, the Bucs were marching down the field, hoping to take a 7-6 lead. With pressure baring down on Brady, he threw the ball away but didn’t see Kearse position himself to make the interception.
Cowboys S Jayron Kearse’s end-zone INT of Tom Bradypic.twitter.com/DntIo6nTVH— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 17, 2023
He left the game with a knee sprain, but according to Kearse, it doesn’t sound too serious. The Cowboys’ defense matched up well against great receivers like Godwin, Mike Evans, and Julio Jones. The 49ers have an even faster squad mixed in with George Kittle. If healthy, Kearse will be relied on to slow them down.
5. Leighton Vander Esch, MLB
Leighton Vander Esch is the hammer for the Dallas defense. Having him back from injury made a massive difference at the linebacker position. Visually, Vander Esch appears very comfortable in Quinn’s scheme and makes plays all over the field.
He led the team in tackles with nine but proved reliable in pass coverage as well. The Wolf Hunter had two pass breakups, one of them being against receiver Julio Jones in the endzone, which he could have intercepted.
The Buccaneers have struggled to run the ball all season, but the Cowboys have struggled to stop the run. The presence of Vander Esch erased that possibility and forced Brady to throw 66 times. No. 55 had a career game the last time Dallas played the 49ers, so hopefully, something about this opponent raises the play of Vander Esch even more.
4. Tyler Smith, LT
Talk about a full-circle moment for rookie Tyler Smith. Once Tryon Smith went down before the season opener, Tyler Smith was thrown into the fire to be Prescott’s blindside blocker. Week 1 was against the Buccaneers, and even though Tyler Smith had some moments, it was an eye-opening experience for the rookie.
Flash forward to the playoffs; Smith had to kick back outside after Jason Peters went down with a reported hip injury. The offensive line play was better once he was back in his usual position. Smith was shown throwing linebackers around like ragdolls and had the athleticism to pull and block downfield, an area in which Peters struggles.
Cowboys rookie Tyler Smith seems to dump a defender like this every game. This time, Bucs LB Devin White on wrong end. Versatility to play both LG and LT shouldn't be taken for granted. Youngest player in building seamlessly kicked outside in playoff win after Jason Peters' exit. pic.twitter.com/DTmCmWfXe6— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 17, 2023
The blinking red light for Smith on Sunday will be Nick Bosa. The All-Pro defensive end has been brutal this season for the NFL’s best left tackles. His natural strength was the one thing circling on Smith’s scouting report coming from Tulsa. I think that will be on full display in the Bay area.
3. Dalton Schultz, TE
Dalton Schultz is to Dak Prescott what Jason Witten was to Tony Romo. It couldn’t have been more true against the Bucs. Kellen Moore exploited the Tampa Bay defense by using Schultz in various ways. The first play on the Cowboys’ first drive of the third quarter was a 26-yard pass to Schultz down the sideline, which jump-started another scoring drive.
Schultz was the team’s leading receiver with seven catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns. His first score was a seam route he and Prescott have connected on throughout their careers. The second one was even better and showed how much trust the two have in each other. Prescott held out for as long as he could until Schultz could make himself open and threw a dart in there for six. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s chemistry.
After missing a few games this season, Schultz has four touchdown receptions in three games. He is getting hot at the right time and could make some money this offseason if he continues the production in the playoffs.
2. Micah Parsons, DE/LB
Micah Parsons has looked beat up down the final stretch of the season. However, the Lion mentioned how “the regular season is cool...But this is where legends are made,” when talking about the postseason.
Cowboys LB Micah Parsons on playoffs: “Honestly, I feel like as far as we go, these are going to be my best games. That’s just because I want it. Regular season is cool. You guys get all hyped up. But this is where legends are made.”— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 12, 2023
Parsons looked healthy and was a nightmare for Brady and the Buccaneers’ offensive line. Tackle Donovan Smith struggled with Parsons in their Week 1 matchup and couldn’t come up with anything this time around to stop him. Running back Leonard Fournette tried to chip Parsons on a rush up the middle, but Fournette just bounced off of Parsons and still applied pressure to Brady, forcing another throw in the dirt.
The only time quarterback Brock Purdy has ever faced a player like Parsons is in practice against Bosa. However, Bosa isn’t trying to sack Purdy. Parsons will be a different animal and could end Purdy’s Cinderella story if he isn’t careful.
1. Dak Prescott, QB
Critics were writing off Dak Prescott, and he decided not to write back. Instead, he decided to show over 30 million people that he’s better than the playoffs 12th-ranked quarterback.
That was Prescott’s legacy moment. He has not had the best luck in the playoffs, with the defense letting him down against Green Bay at home in 2016 and Los Angeles in 2018. Prescott was hit or miss against the 49ers last year and had only one playoff win under his belt.
When someone ever asks about Dak Prescott's best performance in a meaningful game, I offer you 57 seconds of his masterpiece in Tampa Bay from the '22 playoffs. pic.twitter.com/7RftRI8N1o— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) January 17, 2023
All the noise was silenced against the Bucs when No. 4 completed 25 of 33 passes for 305 yards, four touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown. Prescott was playing with focus and determination to change the narrative and win no matter what stood in his way.
Week 1 and Week 18 were his two worst performances of the season against the Buccaneers and the Washington Commanders. History didn’t provide confidence that he would buck the trend, but there should have been confidence in the quarterback as a competitor.
The success of the Cowboys’ Lombardi Trophy run will be directly tied to how Prescott plays.