It is understandable if you still have the warm fuzzies over the Dallas Cowboys’ impressive 31-14 smackdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Given the multiple “curses” they broke in the game, it was a significant step in their attempt to end the season in Glendale, Arizona. There are a couple more they hope to take, starting with the late Sunday game at the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs. That represents another big challenge as they have not advanced beyond that round since the playoffs following the 1995 season. That was the last time they won the Super Bowl.
Last year saw a renewal of one of the oldest playoff rivalries with the 49ers. That one went depressingly poorly as Dallas’ season crashed in the wild card round. They have already gotten over that hump, but now they have to travel to play a second road playoff game, on grass in an open air stadium, and off a short week of practice. All of those have not worked so well in the past. But those first two were handled with aplomb in Tampa Bay, and last week was an unusual schedule as well thanks to playing on Monday Night. That has been an issue for some time whether the week was short or long.
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There was trepidation going into the Buccaneers game because Dallas had so many things they had to get right after the last few games of the regular season. They had to figure out how to turn around almost everything from the debacle against the Washington Commanders. Admittedly, they did so almost completely. Yet there is a lingering concern about the quality of the competition in that game. Tampa Bay came into the payoffs with a losing record, and Tom Brady is not the same player he once was, especially without a strong supporting cast. Now they face the hottest team in the NFL in San Francisco, who won the last ten of their regular season games despite having to turn to rookie Brock Purdy at quarterback. This is a steeper hill to climb. There is more reason to hope they can get over it after the performance in Florida, but that 49ers streak has to be a bit worrisome.
However, context is very important. A look at the opponents San Francisco beat to get to this point doesn’t show them beating a lot of good teams.
(I have no idea why showing the scores of games is sensitive.)
This is actually a similarity the Cowboys and 49ers have, because there just have not been many powerhouses in the league this season, especially in the NFC. Dallas’ two best wins were over the Minnesota Vikings, who were exposed a bit in losing to the New York Giants in their wildcard matchup, and the Philadelphia Eagles without starting quarterback Jalen Hurts.
All this makes the game on Sunday look more even than many (including me) thought it would be right after the end of the regular season. It is a bit of a tossup.
Here are some of the things that will be keys in this game.
Battle of the hot hands
Dak Prescott played arguably the best game of his career on Monday. After a few weeks without starting center Tyler Biadasz, the latter’s return gave the quarterback much better protection to operate behind. That translated to a real carving of the Tampa Bay defense. It also was instrumental in Prescott not throwing a pick in the game.
Purdy is probably having the best rookie campaign of any quarterback since, well, Prescott’s 2016 season. Both were forced into starting when that was clearly not the plan when they were drafted. They were also both late-round picks, with Purdy one-upping Prescott by being the final pick of the 2022 draft, making him the most relevant Mr. Irrelevant in NFL history. To a degree both have found rookie success through some great coaching and simply not accepting they were doing something that was not normal for the NFL.
But there is one key difference for the two, and that is that Prescott is now a seasoned veteran while Purdy is still inexperienced. Both will be facing formidable pass rushes, with Micah Parsons and Nick Bosa the respective leaders. Prescott has faced many of those while Purdy simply hasn’t. Bosa may be the league’s sack leader, but the Cowboys have 54 as a team to the Niners’ 44, and showed against the Buccaneers how relentless pressure even when they don’t get home can disrupt an offense.
Despite his league-leading interception total, there is reason to believe that Prescott is less likely to make mistakes than Purdy. If that holds true, this matchup should favor Dallas.
Leighton Vander Esch versus Christian McCaffery and George Kittle
Biadasz was not the only crucial return to action for the Cowboys. Vander Esch, like Biadasz, is one of the on-field signal callers, and his presence truly elevated the defense. However, the Buccaneers had one of the worst rushing offenses in the league, and San Francisco boast a top ten attack that got markedly better after they traded for McCaffery. Both he and Kittle are also important pieces in the passing game. Covering them will fall largely on the linebackers with help from the safeties. Not only did Vander Esch get people in position to make plays in both phases of the game, he was all over the place in pass defense, getting two pass breakups that both were close to being picks. This is going to be one of the most interesting chess matches on the field. Last game, Vander Esch was leading and playing at a grand master level.
The Dallas secondary versus Deebo Samuel, Brandon Ayuk, and the rest of the SF WRs
You can throw McCaffery in this mix on some plays as well. No position group has been more depleted by injury for the Cowboys than cornerback with the loss of both Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown to IR. Trevon Diggs has been solid and steady, and rookie DaRon Bland has far exceeded expectations since being pressed into service. The safeties have helped, with Donovan Wilson laying the boom on receivers to make them listen for footsteps and Jayron Kearse a stout defender whether called on to cover receivers or serve more as a de facto linebacker. His end zone interception of Brady was the spark that started the touchdown scoring streak to build an insurmountable lead against Tampa Bay.
And it turned out to be the safety room that may have provided the answer for the third corner. Israel Mukuamu was the unsung hero of the defense Monday night, credited with two pass breakups and generally covering receivers tightly. A bit too tightly at times as he seemed to get away with holds or interference on a couple of plays, but we won’t complain about the referees turning their heads on those. Still, he stepped up admirably. His length makes him especially good against big receivers in the slot or tight ends. If he can turn in another good performance, this is another place Dallas may be in much better shape than expected.
The Cowboys’ runners vs the 49ers’ defense
Just looking at the season aggregates, this appears to be strength against strength as San Francisco was the second stingiest defense on the ground, yielding a paltry 78 yards per game while Dallas averaged 135, good for ninth in the league.
But that aggregate is very deceiving for the Cowboys, as the rushing game clearly fell off in the latter part of the season. They became incredibly impotent on early down runs, repeatedly getting behind the sticks and forcing Prescott to have to pick up first downs with his arm. This is one area Dallas is at a real disadvantage.
The solution for this may be to not use the run much early in the game. Prescott showed he can make it irrelevant with his stellar performance after a couple of bad series to start the last game. If he can come out hot, or heat up rapidly as he did against the Buccaneers, the run game can be used the way it really always should be, converting some short yardage situations and then burning clock if you can build a lead. Another week with Biadasz might also improve things. All indications are that the Cowboys’ best rusher is Tony Pollard. Ezekiel Elliott is largely unhelpful except for those third and ones, and even there he sometimes is stopped short.
The onus here is on Kellen Moore. He had some moments of brilliance against Tampa, and he needs to bring his A game to keep drives going and put points on the board. If he can get a good mix of passing and running and do better scheming up runs when they use them, he may overcome the advantage San Francisco has. But this game is most likely going to be won or lost through the air.
The Dallas receiving corps needs to have another good day
The tight ends, mostly Dalton Schultz but also rookie Jake Ferguson, did the biggest part of the damage in the passing game, accounting for 129 of the 305 total receiving yards and the first two touchdown game by a tight end in the playoffs in Dallas history by Schultz. But the wide receivers had a good day as a group, with CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup chipping in 110 yards and two more TDs. Lamb had the most of the two, but Gallup’s first reception of the day gave the Cowboys their initial first down conversion of the game and started the scoring drive steamroller. His touchdown was a remarkable individual effort as well. Lamb’s was more a case of another beautiful play design and call, which brings Moore back into the equation. Noah Brown and T.Y Hilton also had a couple of nice grabs apiece.
The wide receiver situation has been troublesome all year, but things may finally be coming together at just the right time. Throwing Tony Pollard into the mix gives Prescott seven targets that he used so effectively last game. It is still somewhat of a by committee affair, but it worked, and Gallup may finally be returning to form after his long recovery from last season’s injury. Timing can be everything.
Brett Maher’s yips
This was one thing that no one had on their playoff bingo card. After a year when he was so reliable, Maher inexplicably missed four consecutive extra points, which has to be some kind of record. Now the team is in the awkward position of hoping this was just a wild aberration while having to set up an alternative solution.
The Cowboys will add K Tristan Vizcaino to the practice squad as insurance after Brett Maher missed 4 PATs in Monday’s wild-card win against Tampa Bay, per sources. The plan is for Maher to kick vs. San Francisco but Vizcaino gives them some cover if Maher struggles in practice.— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) January 18, 2023
In the wild card game, it didn’t matter as the Cowboys built up a 24-0 lead without those points. But the divisional round matchup will likely be much closer, and failed kicks could be fatal. It is going to be hard to put faith in Maher if the game comes down to a field goal attempt. The only solution is likely between Maher’s ears. All we can do is hope for the best.