DALLAS — The regular season was kind to the Dallas Cowboys overall as they earned 12-wins for a second consecutive year. However, unlike last season, the success wasn’t enough to win the NFC East, and the Cowboys will have to hit the road for their first playoff game.
Even with a distinct advantage in the standings, the matchup that Dallas landed with isn’t a fun one. The Cowboys will be tasked with defeating the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
Despite having a sub-.500 record this season, it’s never easy eliminating one of the league’s all-time great players from the postseason with a team that won it all as recently as two years ago. Brady and the Buccaneers offer plenty of resistance for the Cowboys in their quest to end a 26-year NFC championship game drought.
Here are the keys to beating the Buccaneers on super wild-card weekend:
Make Brady show his age
He’s a seven-time Super Bowl champion, but the times that Brady has been derailed in the postseason have come because of a defense's ability to pressure him, especially up the middle.
The Cowboys were tied for third in the league in sacks with 54 but slowed down late in the season. That pressure production needs to ramp back up in the playoffs and team sack leader Micah Parsons has been telling anyone who will listen that it’s time to pick things up again.
However, the Buccaneers allowed the fewest sacks in the league, with Brady going down just 22 times. Brady is a master at understanding the pocket and getting the ball out quickly, so the Cowboys will need to get home fast to make Brady uncomfortable. In the first matchup in Week 1, the Cowboys had two sacks, both by Parsons.
Tampa Bay is also banged up on the offensive line and could be down to their third-string center, which would give Dallas something that they can exploit.
Halt Brady’s weapons
Two of the reasons that the Cowboys need to pressure Brady is to help slow down one of the best one-two wide receiver punches in the league. Receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans both surpassed 1,000-yards on the season, and for the third time in four years.
For Evans, it extended his streak of nine years with 1,000-yard seasons to start his career, which remains an NFL record. Evans scored a touchdown in the first matchup on an acrobatic catch against the Cowboys’ best cornerback, Trevon Diggs.
The former Texas A&M standout is also getting hot at the right time as he had 207 yards and three scores in Week 17, which saw the Buccaneers’ offense explode for 30+ points for just the second time in 2022.
Godwin, meanwhile, had a successful season coming off a major knee injury suffered last year, leading the Buccaneers in receptions with 104 which was good enough for 8th most in the league.
With just one starting CB remaining from Week 1, the Cowboys will need a big effort from the secondary to slow the dynamic receiving duo.
Reignite running game
Tampa’s defense has been one of the better rushing defenses in recent years, but they’ve had some trouble stopping the run in 2022. The Buccaneers allow 120.7 yards per game on the ground, which is middle of the pack in the league.
The Cowboys started the year as one of the best rushing teams in the league with the duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. The tandem did manage to rush for 1,883 yards and 21 touchdowns combined, but Dallas has had issues running the ball down the stretch. The offense averaged 3.1 yards per carry over the final four games of the season.
Against a defense that boasts one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the league in Vita Vea, the Cowboys need to find a way to run the ball better. Being less predictable on early down play calling and running when the defense isn’t expecting it would help, as should getting starting center Tyler Biadasz back from his sprained ankle.
The offense doesn’t need to run it more, but they need to be more efficient, and more effective, when they do choose to run.
Play the game in front of them
This is an odd occurrence for the Cowboys as they have four more wins than the Buccaneers on the season and look like the better team overall. However, there are things being mentioned as black marks for the Cowboys that are beyond the current roster’s control or have anything to do with this game being played.
There’s a litany of facts that have been thrown around as predictive doom for Dallas this week:
● The Cowboys haven’t won a road playoff game in 30 years
● The Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game in the navy jerseys since Roger Staubach was quarterbacking the team
● The team’s record on grass is terrible
● Tom Brady has never lost to the Cowboys
● The Cowboys always choke in the playoffs
But as Wade Phillips once told his Cowboys team in 2009, “this team has never lost a playoff game” after beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round. The point then, just as it is now, was that the past doesn’t matter. All that matters is what the Cowboys do on Monday night against the Buccaneers.
These Cowboys cannot do anything about the teams or games that came before them, they can only worry about this season, and this game. The only way that they can change the way the past is used against them is by staying in the present.
Everything else is just for talk, the 2022 Dallas Cowboys must show up and play to win this game while leaving the narratives where they belong.
Do you think the Cowboys will earn their first road playoff win since 1992? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.