Any Dallas Cowboys fans who went into Monday Night Football worried about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to have felt pretty good going into halftime with an 18-0 lead. This matchup ended up being an old-fashion 31-14 beatdown. Dak Prescott showed out as he had his best career playoff performance. On the other side, Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, had one of the roughest playoff performances in his career.
This 2022-23 Cowboys team has had a season that has felt like an absolute roller coaster. Yet, they still finished 12-5 and are advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. Respect must be given to the coaching staff and players for hitting all cylinders in their biggest game of the season. So what didn’t go right for the Cowboys? Almost everything but let’s break down the glaring specifics.
Dak Prescott’s bounce back
Talk about silencing the critics. Dak Prescott was the talk of the mainstream media leading up to wildcard weekend because of his lackluster Week 18 performance and shaky regular season. Plagued with a thumb injury that lead him to miss five games, he still had 15 interceptions which lead the NFL and is the highest in one season in his career.
If someone predicted a Prescott stat line of 75.8% passes completed, 305 passing yards, four passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, and ZERO interceptions against the 9th best defense in the league, it would’ve sounded a little overzealous. Well, that all came to light as Prescott dominated in the best playoff performance of his career and arguably his career in general.
It was quite the spectacle to watch Prescott bounce back from his worst performance of the season in a Week 18 loss to the Washington Commanders. There was so much doubt and criticism of Prescott and how he would do in this wildcard game. He answered the call and proved critics wrong. The Bucs’ defensive head coach Todd Bowles threw tons of different looks and personnel at Prescott. He didn’t blink and dissected the Tampa defense.
The game started slowly as the Cowboy’s first two offensive drives ended in three-and-outs. Prescott started 0-3 passing but those are categorized as drops by the receivers on the box score. From the third offensive drive and the rest of the game, Prescott was surgical with his precise passing. The Bucs’ defense had one sack in the first quarter. After that, the defensive pressure wasn’t enough to touch Prescott. He stayed calm and unshakable as he wasn’t phased by any stunts and blitzes called by the Bucs.
The run game wasn’t amazing throughout the game but the duo between Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliot did their part rushing for 104 yards combined against a tough rushing defense. That meant the weight fell onto Prescott facing the fully healthy Tampa defensive backs. Yet, they were no match and there were no answers for Prescott and the Dallas passing offense. The confidence was there for Prescott, he didn’t shy away. Instead, he stepped up and played his best in this pivotal game in his legacy.
The Arrival Of A No-Fly Zone Defense
As it was said earlier, Tom Brady had a rough outing in his potential final game as a Buccaneer. Every level of defense deserves its flowers because the Bucs’ pass-heavy offense was stuck in neutral along with the run game that was non-existent for Tampa. There really isn’t much to criticize about the Dallas defense. My personal and biggest worry going into this game was how the defensive backs would fare against Brady and his wide receiver corp. More specifically the cornerbacks (outside of Trevon Diggs) since they’ve been an issue this year after Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown both suffered season-ending injuries.
The rotation at the cornerback two position between Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, and Trayvon Mullen who was claimed off waivers in early December was not working at all. That was the glaring weakness because the big passing plays have been killing the Cowboys in this last month of the regular season.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn made some drastic changes with the group going into Monday. Rookie fifth-round pick DaRon Bland who has been very good as slot corner was moved to outside corner this week for the first time in his pro career and collegiate career. Israel Mukuamu has only had limited playing time and is listed as a safety; he played slot corner and made some solid plays on his end even at an unfamiliar position.
These changes were bold moves from Quinn, but they worked out as the Bucs’ passing game never got into a rhythm. Even with the new changes, Dallas only let up one big passing play which was a 30-yard Brady to Julio Jones touchdown late in the third quarter.
Dallas played two high safeties for the majority of the game which was the perfect call by Quinn as he refused to get beat over the top. The deep passing game never went as Brady had a low 5.3 yards per pass. To put into perspective how bad Brady’s yards per pass were, he had the second lowest of the wildcard weekend just ahead of Skylar Thompson’s 4.9 yards per pass. Brady finished with 66 pass attempts, the most in his career 23-year career. Out of those 66 attempts, only 13 were longer than 10 yards.
Arguably the most significant contributor to Brady not being able to connect on any big plays was because of the pressure from Micah Parsons and the defensive front for Dallas. The pressure was on Brady from the first series and it didn’t end until the clock hit 00:00.
Although he was only sacked twice, the QB pressures were on Brady as he had to rush passes off all night. Parsons alone had 10 QB pressures (nextgenstats.nfl.com). The impressive point from this Dallas defense was that they brought pressure without having to blitz regularly. On 62 out of 68 drop-backs by Brady, he was faced with only four or fewer man rushes. Quinn only called blitz six times throughout Monday night and was still able to pressure Brady into throwing quickly and being off rhythm which ultimately ruined Tampa’s game plan. The defensive game plan worked to perfection against Brady and the Bucs
The rumors about Sean Payton coming to Dallas can be put to rest. Mike McCarthy deserves respect for his efforts this season. This is his second consecutive season going 12-5 and making the playoffs. He also went 4-1 with Cooper Rush this year while Prescott was injured. McCarthy not only kept the ship afloat but he made the ship a power to be reckoned with. Now he advances his team to the divisional round of the playoffs.
So many aspects of this game were great but I want to focus on the penalties against the Cowboys. Which was a great improvement from the past. Penalties were a huge issue in the 2021 playoff game versus the 49ers, Dallas committed a whopping 14 penalties for 89 yards. Compared to Monday versus the Bucs, they only committed two for 15 yards. The team is more refined and I believe much more prepared for this upcoming rematch against the San Francisco 49ers.
Kellen Moore has been a popular target for criticism, I’ll admit that I’ve also been a part of that critic bandwagon as well. Respect should be given where it is due because Moore was fantastic as the offensive play caller. This was easily one of his best games as the Cowboy’s offensive coordinator and it came at the right time since he had the 9th best defense in the league reeling the entire game. Todd Bowles and his defense had no answer for the combo of Prescott running the plays that Moore was calling.
Dan Quinn was discussed earlier in this piece but he certainly deserves another shoutout. Quinn has been the most consistent coach on this team since he joined the team in 2021. His game plan and the changes he made with the personnel on his defense were the right calls to make. Although Quinn wasn’t going up against a prime Tom Brady, being able to shut him and his offense down for the majority of the game in such a dominant fashion is an impressive accomplishment.
After an impressive win Monday, there is little time to celebrate as the Cowboys have their work cut out as they now face their toughest test of the season: The San Francisco 49ers. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is running the hottest team in the league as they continued their 11-game winning streak in their 41-23 wildcard blowout versus the Seattle Seahawks.
The stakes are raised for both sides of the ball for Dallas as both the Niners’ offense and defense are deadly. The defense is #1 overall in the league and the offense run by rookie seventh-round pick Brock Purdy is looking as dangerous as it ever has in the Shanahan era. This matchup is an opportunity for the Cowboys to get their revenge after the 49ers went into Dallas last year on wildcard weekend and beat them 23-17. The Cowboys will be put to the brink with this challenge as they travel to Levi Stadium this upcoming Sunday, kicking off at 5:30 CT.