Cowboys at Buccaneers score: Dallas offense explodes en route to win, Tampa Bay falls flat

The Dallas Cowboys are moving on to the divisional round after a convincing win at Raymond James Stadium where they took down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to wrap up Super Wild Card Weekend, 31-14.

Both offenses were sluggish out of the gate as each registered consecutive three-and-outs to begin the game. Dallas then came alive on its third possession of the evening, traveling 80 yards on seven plays as Dak Prescott connected with Dalton Schultz for the game’s first touchdown. That did seem to open the flood gates as Tampa Bay then began moving the ball and got all the way to the Cowboys five-yard line. However, it was at that point when Tom Brady threw an interception in the end zone to Jayron Kearse. That was one of the few successful Bucs possessions of the night and their only shot at scoring when the game was still within reach. From there, Dallas scored three touchdowns on consecutive drives to help establish a 24-point lead.

Even when Tampa Bay finally found the end zone at the end of the third quarter with a Brady 30-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones, the Cowboys answered with a nine-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to go up 31-6. That really eliminate any slight inkling that Brady may pull another miraculous comeback out of his helmet.

Prescott finished with a superb stat line. He was 25 of 33 for 305 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for a score and added 24 yards on the ground. Schultz was his go-to target on the night, catching seven of his eight targets for a team-high 95 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Brady was 35 of 66 for 351 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

For a more detailed breakdown of how this game unfolded, check out our takeaways below.

Why the Cowboys won

For a minute, it looked like Dallas was going to roll out a continuation of the Week 18 dud they had against Washington. Their first possession lasted roughly 10 seconds before punting the ball away, and they had another three-and-out on the following drive. During that stretch, Dak Prescott was unable to complete a pass. And then the switch was flipped.

The Cowboys offense came alive, and it was thanks to the arm of Prescott that ripped off 11-straight completions, which were a new franchise playoff record. During that run, he conducted consecutive 80-yard touchdown drives. The first concluded with a touchdown to Dalton Schultz and Prescott then ran it in himself on a nifty fourth-and-goal play-call by Mike McCarthy. During that 11 completion streak, Prescott threw for 135 yards and a touchdown, while also adding that rushing score.

Prescott didn’t slow down after that either, tossing another touchdown before halftime and another right after, making it four consecutive touchdown drives to help Dallas roll on a 24-0 run. Those scoring drives also weren’t layups either as they traveled 80, 80, 91, and 86 yards, slicing up this Tampa Bay defense up and down the field. That lead proved to be more than enough to keep a strong distance in front of Bucs. Even when they did finally get into the end zone, Dallas made sure snuff out any spark they had as they quickly answered with a 66-yard touchdown drive to go up 31-6.

After that initial sluggish start on the opening two drives, Dallas’ offense was also strong in critical situations, converting seven of their 11 third down situations and both fourth down tries. They were also successful in all four of their red zone trips, while the defense held the Bucs out of the end zone on two of their three trips.

As it specifically relates to Prescott, it’s also notable that he did not throw a single interception in this game. That had been an issue for him throughout the regular season, being tied for the most interceptions in the league despite missing five games due to injury. If he can continue to keep the ball away from the opposition, Dallas will continue to be dangerous.

The only real negative aspect of this game on the Cowboys side of things came on special teams with kicker Brett Maher, who missed four extra point attempts.

Why the Buccaneers lost

The big question surrounding the Buccaneers coming into these playoffs was whether or not they were a true postseason threat or a mere consolation winner of a dreadful division. From what we saw on Monday night, Tampa Bay didn’t look like a legitimate playoff contender by any stretch of the imagination.

The offense was tremendously flat and Tom Brady did seem to struggle to find any sort of rapport with his pass catchers — specifically Mike Evans — early. As the Cowboys rolled out to a 24-0 lead, they Bucs offense punted five times (three three-and-outs), had an interception in the end zone, and were unable to score before time ran out in the first half. By the time they actually got on the scoreboard, the game was already out of reach and those holding out hope of a comeback were merely doing so because of the quarterback’s résumé rather than what the current product on the field was showing us they were.

As has been the case throughout the season, the running game was nonexistent for Tampa Bay, which naturally impacts how defenses play against the pass. Even before the Bucs abandoned the run to try and throw themselves back into this matchup, they were not getting much of anything out of a backfield that rushed for 24 yards on seven carries in the first half.

While the offense continued to have its fair share of issues, the defense didn’t exactly answer the bell either. They couldn’t get off the field as Dallas carved them up for long, soul-crushing drives, and particularly broke down in key areas of the field. The entire defense bit on Dak Prescott’s keeper touchdown run as no one followed him as he rolled out to his left and easily walked in for a touchdown. One of the bigger back-breaking moments in this loss came after Tampa Bay finally got into the end zone thanks to a 30-yard touchdown from Brady to Julio Jones. Dallas quickly moved down the field and got to the Buccaneers 18-yard line before deciding to go for it on fourth down. On that play, there was a complete breakdown in coverage that left CeeDee Lamb wide-open for the touchdown that put Tampa down by 25.

This is the fourth one-and-done playoff trip for Tom Brady in his career. Now, all eyes will be on the quarterback and what he’ll do next. While there will be plenty of time to dissect all that, this was a game — and a season — to forget for TB12.

Turning point

As is the case in most games, there were a handful of key swings in this game. Brady’s end zone interception was naturally a massive speed bump that blew out the tires of the Bucs offense. That was his first red zone interception since he joined Tampa Bay and snapped the longest streak in NFL history (407 attempts) of now throwing a pick in the red zone.

With that turnover being sandwiched in between two Cowboys touchdowns, it exacerbated the miscue even more.

While that swing was on the quarterback, there was also a decision by Todd Bowles in the first half that does deserve some second-guessing. On the possession following that interception, the Bucs found themselves down by 12 but finding some rhythm offensively. After starting at their own 25-yard line, they brought the ball to midfield and faced a fourth-and-3 situation, where Bowles elected to send out the punting unit. Given that the offense had started to show signs of life and where they were on the field, that should have been a moment to keep the unit on the field and go for it.

Instead, they gave the ball back, and Dallas marched 91 yards down the field and went up by 18 points. In a playoff setting like this game, a little aggressiveness especially when your team started to build some momentum would’ve been the savvy move there by Bowles rather than playing it conservatively.

Play of the game

Prescott’s second passing touchdown of the night was arguably his most impressive. With his initial reads bottled up and pressure coming up the middle, he was forced out to his left and was rolling towards the sideline before contorting his body to make an off-balanced throw that zipped right into the arms of Schulz. That concluded a 91-yard touchdown drive right before halftime that gave Dallas all the cushion they’d need to ensure the win.

Prescott’s four passing touchdowns in this game tied a Cowboys playoff as he joined legends Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. Prescott also had the highest passer rating (143.3) in a game in Cowboys playoff history (min. 20 attempts).

What’s next

From here, the Cowboys will gear up for their divisional round matchup with the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium next Sunday at 6:30 pm ET. As for the Buccaneers, they’re about to enter what is poised to be a transformative offseason as Brady, who is set to hit free agency, decides his next move.

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