Well, that was downright pathetic. The Dallas Cowboys’ performance against rookie quarterback Sam Howell and the Washington Commanders shouldn’t be described any other way. The last game of the regular season couldn’t have been worse and any momentum going into the playoffs was killed Sunday afternoon.
Dallas went into Week 18 having a chance to win the NFC East and a slim chance to get the first seed in the NFC. Both of those scenarios required help from the New York Giants and the Arizona Cardinals. The help didn’t pull through as the Giants fell to the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cardinals. In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway since the Commanders beat up the Cowboys, 26-6.
Locked into the fifth seed in the playoffs, the Cowboys will now travel to Florida to play the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Monday Night Football on wild card weekend. This is the same Bucs team that blew them out in Dallas, 19-3 in Week One. Although the Bucs come in with an 8-9 record and haven’t looked the same as years past, it’s a tough matchup for the Cowboys because of their weaknesses. There are multiple reasons why danger lurks for the Cowboys, they must clean it up fast to win in the first round of the playoffs.
KaVontae Turpin has had an overall solid season and even made this year’s Pro Bowl team as a kick/punt returner. Turpin hasn’t been perfect though and has had his share of turnovers for the Cowboys as well. His two fumbles have come on muffed punt returns and coincidently on the first punts of the game.
They occurred against the Houston Texans and this most recent game against the Commanders. Both instances gave the opponent a short field and they scored a touchdown on that same drive. Every mistake matters and makes a difference; this absolutely cannot happen in the playoffs. The Pro Bowler must play a clean game as the Cowboys’ punt returner.
Now for the elephant in the room; Dak Prescott has a big problem. He’s had a very rough season, and although he isn’t to blame for every issue the Cowboys currently have, he is far from being the perfect solution. His problem is throwing too many interceptions this year. Even after missing five games with a thumb injury, he still has a career-high in interceptions thrown in a season (15).
“It stinks…I’ve got to get better at it. This won’t continue,” Prescott said in his Week 18 post-game interview. Sound familiar? Prescott had a similar answer when he was asked about his interception problem after playing the Texans in Week 14.
“I don’t like throwing interceptions…I’ve just got to stop throwing interceptions. Whether they’re picked, deflected, whatever. It just can’t happen anymore.” Since this quote, Prescott has thrown six more interceptions and ended the regular season throwing at least one interception in the last seven games. His total on the year is up to a league-high of 15 interceptions, tied with the Texans’ Davis Mills who has played five games less than Prescott.
It might be more of a mental and confidence issue at this point which is hard to change overnight. It’s unfortunate, but the Cowboys coaches and team have to see the turnovers as a realistic liability week after week. The hard-hitting truth is that Prescott’s protection of the ball needs to improve if the Cowboys want to make it past the Buccaneers and even deeper. The more chances Tom Brady gets as a gift to score, the more likely a recipe for the Cowboys being defeated is found.
The Offensive Inconsistencies
When this year’s Cowboys’ offense is on point, it is absolutely rolling through opposing defenses. The run game is strong with Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard gashing defensive front sevens. Then Prescott will be hitting Ceedee Lamb in stride over the middle for a big gain after running a successful play-action pass to Dalton Shultz. All this is clicking behind great offensive line play led by future Hall of Fame guard Zach Martin and even rookie left tackle Tyler Smith. That’s the ideal offense that the team has pulled off multiple times this year, for example against the Vikings, Bears, and Colts where 40+ points were scored.
Now this team has also shown the opposite offense where they can’t move the ball or score consistently. The Cowboys look like a completely different team when their offense is off-schedule. The most recent game was a prime example of this as they had a season-high 11 three-and-outs versus the Commanders. This same Washington team was coming off a loss when they couldn’t stop Deshaun Watson and the Browns, then the previous week before where Brock Purdy and the 49ers destroyed them. The Cowboys played all their starters and couldn’t move the ball outside of one scoring drive before halftime against a mediocre Washington team who was playing for pride.
The Cowboys have shown they can overcome an inconsistent offensive game to crawl to a win, but now it’s different. They aren’t playing the Texans or Titans who they previously beat while having bad offensive days. This is the playoffs where every NFC defense is good or great (outside of the Minnesota Viking’s 31st-ranked defense). Now they face the Buccaneers who rank as the 9th best defense and only allow 203.6 passing yards per game (ESPN.com). The Cowboys cannot come out of the gate sluggish. If they do, then they’re in danger of getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for a second season in a row.
The Big Plays Allowed
The Cowboys’ defense was electric in the first half of the season. It was arguably a top-three defense right next to the 49ers and Eagles. It has taken a step back through this last month. In my last article, I dove into why the defense has been worse and how they’ve looked since Week 14 and beyond against not-so-great quarterbacks.
Now the defense has the task of stopping Tom Brady and his offense. The Bucs are not the same offense as their 2020 Super Bowl team and not even as their 2021 team. Their run game is non-existent as they only have 1,308 total rushing yards and average 76.9 yards per game on the ground. (ESPN.com). Both of those rank dead last in the league. Even Brady has had a drop-off this season with completion percentage and touchdowns from last year. The offense as a whole is just not as efficient, yet here they are in the playoffs.
The one aspect of the Bucs that should scare the Cowboys is the big plays. Dallas has been a victim of getting burned by large chunk plays all season. Just in the past three weeks, it’s happened through the air. Against the Commanders when Terry McLaurin caught a 52-yard bomb from Sam Howell. Even Joshua Dobbs and the Titans were able to hit Racey McMath for a deep 39-yard pass. The Cowboy’s best cornerback, Trevon Diggs has, unfortunately, had his fair share of big plays given up as the video below shows versus AJ Brown.
The Bucs’ main connection between Brady and Mike Evans has been a little off this year. They’ve had multiple games where they’re on different pages and can’t get in sync to connect on the field. Eventually, Brady to Evans had the game they needed to break through in Week 17 against the Carolina Panthers. Both players had their best game of the year as Brady passed for 432 yards and scored four touchdowns, while Evans had 10 catches for 207 yards and scored three touchdowns. The deep ball was unstoppable that game and this is what the Cowboys need to worry about. A double move to hit Evans deep has the ability to kill the Cowboys on defense.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is going to have to adjust his safeties this game to make sure the deep ball won’t be as successful for Brady this week. The Bucs’ running game on the ground should still be respected of course but Brady and his receiving corps will be the main priority to stop in order to win this game. Taking away the ability of the big play from the Bucs will go a long way for the Cowboys in this matchup.
The bottom line is that the Cowboys have a tall task this week with the Buccaneers. The potential danger that was discussed is almost all self-inflicting. The team has looked phenomenal at times this season when both offense and defense are clicking, now it’s time to bring that to the playoffs.
Even with their hands full, the Cowboys do have the ingredients to win in Tampa and advance to the divisional round. It just falls onto Dak Prescott and the offense getting a good rhythm, limiting the turnovers to hopefully zero, and stopping Brady from even being able to attempt the big plays. Sounds easy right? Let’s see how it plays out on Monday Night Football next week.