TAMPA, Fla. — Dak Prescott was clinical as the Dallas Cowboys took care of business on the road against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday in the final game of the opening round of the playoffs.
The Buccaneers were able to get the best of the Cowboys in the season opener, 19-3, but Prescott’s five total touchdowns and a dominant defense was too much in the 31-14 wild-card matchup.
The Cowboys will travel to face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday (6:30 pm ET, Fox) in the divisional round.
The Tom Brady curse? Over.
The eight-game road playoff losing streak? Done.
Monday’s thumping of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended Brady’s personal seven-game winning streak against the Cowboys and gave Dallas its first road playoff win since the 1992 NFC Championship Game.
It was the Cowboys’ most complete performance of this season since the 40-3 demolition of the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 20 and it might be the jolt the team needs to make it back to a Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.
Since that win over the Vikings, the Cowboys were chasing that kind of performance and struggled in wins against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, while losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in overtime. Now the Cowboys look for a road playoff winning streak when they take on the 49ers on Sunday.
QB breakdown: Prescott kept assuring everybody the interception thing would end. It’s not clear if anybody believed him, but Prescott believed it. He set an NFL postseason record by running for a touchdown and throwing a touchdown in his fourth straight playoff game. With four touchdown passes, he joined Troy Aikman (Super Bowl XXVII) and Roger Staubach (1975 NFC Championship Game) as the third Cowboys QB with four scores in a playoff game. His confidence grew steadily. His second touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz was a thing of beauty, scrambling to his left and throwing across his body to the tight end to give the Cowboys an 18-0 lead. In his four previous playoff games, Prescott had at least one interception in three games. It wasn’t that he just played mistake-free. He made big plays in key moments.
Buy breakout performance: The defense looked like the defense from the beginning of the season when opponents couldn’t crack 20 points in six of the first seven games. Micah Parsons was a nuisance and saw more action at off-the-ball linebacker than he had over the second half of the season. Jayron Kearse had the first red zone interception of Brady’s career in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers couldn’t run the ball, which is far different than when these teams met in the opener when they had 152 yards on the ground. The Niners will present more of a challenge with running back Christian McCaffrey, receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle and rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, but this has to raise the group’s confidence.
Troubling trends: Kicker Brett Maher was as consistent as he could be in the regular season. He missed just three extra points all season. He missed four on Monday. And that comes on the heels of missing his only point-after attempt in the regular-season finale against the Washington Commanders. His first two misses were sliced to the right. His third was hooked to the left. His fourth went off the top of the right upright. According to Elias, Brett Maher is the only player in any NFL game since 1932 to miss four extra points in one game, regular season or playoffs. So there’s that. Do the Cowboys need to look at a kicker as they move into the divisional round of the playoffs?
Underrated statistic to know: At one point in the first half, Prescott had 11 straight completions, which broke the Cowboys’ postseason record, previously set by Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXX vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, per Elias. — Todd Archer
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There will be no second shot at the 49ers and no eighth Super Bowl ring this season for Brady.
Monday marked Brady’s first loss to the Cowboys and was just the third time that his team was eliminated in the wild-card round of the playoffs, with the last loss coming on Jan. 4, 2020, in a 30-27 loss to the Tennessee Titans in his last game with the New England Patriots. Brady had gone 2-0 in wild-card rounds with the Buccaneers the last two years.
With Brady set to become an unrestricted free agent, general manager Jason Licht will make every effort to re-sign him this offseason, and they will give him all the time he needs to make a decision — one that will be heavily influenced by family given his desire to be close to his children. But his status will determine whether they are in a ‘win-now’ mode or forced to rebuild.
There are also questions about the coaching staff. Todd Bowles is expected to be back as coach in 2023, but this was not the staff he assembled. Might there be changes? Brady wants to hear what their plan is for next year.
QB breakdown: Despite the return of Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen, who missed the entire regular season with torn ligaments in his knee and gave the whole team a jolt this week, Brady was pressured heavily, and the offense looked out of rhythm. The offensive line could not block Micah Parsons and as a result, Brady had not completed a pass of 10 or more yards in the first half. Brady completed 35 of 66 passes for 351 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
The interception came at the beginning of the second quarter on an ill-advised throw intended for wide receiver Russell Gage with safety Jayron Kearse getting the pick. It was Brady’s first interception in the red zone in 409 pass attempts. Brady’s first touchdown pass came at the end of the third quarter, finding wide receiver Julio Jones along the left sideline for a 30-yard touchdown, and his second — which was set up by an onside kick recovery by Giovani Bernard — came with 2:04 left in the game to Cameron Brate on an 8-yard score.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Even with their entire starting secondary back, the Bucs’ disguised coverages weren’t enough to fool Prescott. Their pass rush struggled to keep him in the pocket, and they couldn’t cover the Cowboys’ tight ends.
The first touchdown to a tight end was a 22-yard throw to Dalton Shultz. Prescott held off safety Mike Edwards, who had one of his roughest games as a Buccaneer. It was set up by a roughing the passer call on defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. Then on fourth-and-goal from the 1, the Bucs sold out to stop the run with linebacker KJ Britt losing possession and Prescott running a bootleg into the end zone untouched.
Prior to that, the Bucs had a completely blown coverage on a 35-yard reception by tight end Jake Ferguson.
Prescott found Shultz once more on an 11-yard touchdown — with Edwards out of position once again — thrown on the run with 27 seconds left to go. Cee Dee Lamb also slipped through for a score after lining up in a trips left formation with Schultz and Noah Brown. Lamb was unaccounted for and ran wide open for an 18-yard touchdown reception.
Underrated statistic to know: Brady’s 66 pass attempts were the most of his career in a playoff game, and his 31 completions were the most for him in a playoff game. — Jenna Laine