They are lower seeded and on the road, but due to the inconsistency of their opponents this season, the Dallas Cowboys will be the betting favorites against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Monday’s NFC wild card matchup.
The Cowboys’ 12 regular season wins won’t matter much with point guard Tom Brady, seven games undefeated against Dallas, on the other side. That won’t make matters any easier for a team that ended its worst offensive performance of the season against the Washington Commanders.
Here are four things that need to happen for the Cowboys to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore find their rhythm
For the Cowboys to overtake the Buccaneers, Prescott will have to be much better than the tape he released eight days earlier.
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The 37.8% completion rate was the worst of his career. He threw interceptions in seven straight games and finished the regular season tied with Houston Texans quarterback Davis Mills for the league lead. On Sunday, his misses were not close and his readings seemed late.
Prescott and the Cowboys opened each of at least two seasons against the Buccaneers, both losing. The first was a 31-29 back-and-forth affair in which Prescott threw 58 times (42 completions) for 403 yards and three touchdowns. In 2022, Dallas couldn’t even find the end zone and lost 19-3.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will need to find a way to position Prescott in the passing game and build confidence early on. The play action will help, but it would require setting the gear, which brings us to point number 2.
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The game of Run becomes grooved
The Cowboys carried the ball seven times in the first inning against Washington and were stopped for a total of 10 yards. Neither Ezekiel Elliott (eight runs, 10 yards) nor Tony Pollard (seven runs, 19 yards) could find much room to run. The complete lack of production on the first exit, Moore said, made it difficult to maintain drives.
Dallas had 10 threes and outs with Prescott on the field (12 total) and went 4-for-18 on his third attempt (22%). The Cowboys finished the season fifth in third-ball conversion percentage (45.5%), the main reason being their success with the ball on early attempts.
Offensive lane health will obviously have an impact on the effectiveness of the quick attack, and the good news is that mid laner Tyler Bias is set to return to the playoffs. But Terence Steele’s lack of gear will make things difficult against the average buccaneer who rushes to defend.
Special teams defecate bad game
The mistakes made by the special teams in what turned out to be a pointless game in Week 18 can be left unsaid. However, special team lapses in the playoffs will cost people jobs.
Misconduct against Washington was notable. Bryan Anger misjudged the snap and missed a punt by spinning the ball in the red zone. The returning KaVontae Turpin signaled a fair catch, but forgot the most important part – catching the ball – and put Washington back into a prime position in the field. Kicker Brett Maher missed the extra point. Turpin made a punt that should have allowed it to roll into the end zone.
Against a team with signals calling Tom Brady, special team bloopers can be the death knell.
Breaking Tom Brady’s curse
It is simple. Brady’s record is 7-0 against the Cowboys, and his last two wins came in a Buccaneers outfit. This will be the first time Dallas faces Brady in the post-season.
Follow Chris Bumbaka on Twitter @BOOMback.