It was a night about doubt — or more specifically, erasing it. With memories of last year’s playoff failure still lingering, and with an embarrassing regular-season finale still fresh on the mind, the Dallas Cowboys had no shortage of doubters heading into this, the slow-arriving nightcap of this wildcard weekend.
That feels like a silly sentence to type in the aftermath of a 31-14 pasting of Tampa Bay that was even more lopsided than the score suggests. And as they look toward the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 2018, that’s got to be considered a confidence booster — something that could come in handy in a big-time tilt against the San Francisco 49ers.
“They took us out last year. We know what we’ve got ahead of us,” said Dak Prescott after the game.
The hype of a Cowboys-Niners rematch will be unreal, and it will be discussed in every way imaginable.
In the meantime, Prescott deserves top billing in any re-telling of this game. No member of this Cowboys organization has caught more criticism than the seventh-year quarterback, who led the league in interceptions this season despite missing five games due to injury. Right off the bat, Monday looked like it could be another forgettable chapter, as Prescott’s first three passes fell incomplete and he was sacked, all within his first six snaps of the game. As it turns out, it would be a rarity for Prescott or his passes to hit the turf from that point on.
Across the middle portion of this game, when the outcome was still in doubt, Prescott dissected the Buccaneer defense at a click of 15-for-17 for 203 yards and two touchdowns. When that wasn’t working, he toted the ball seven times for another 24 and his fourth career postseason rushing touchdown.
“We settled in. Missed a couple early, but we settled in, we got in a groove,” Prescott said. Perhaps more importantly, he played his first turnover-free game in two months, snapping a streak of seven-straight games with an interception. That’s been a sticking point that has followed him all season, raising the stakes on an already massive game. Asked about fighting off that outward perception, he was blunt.
“I didn’t listen. Simply just didn’t listen to anybody else’s opinions, anybody else’s thoughts,” he said. “Made sure I was conscious of what I put in my own head. I’ve got a great supporting cast and my team, people that believe in me. That’s all that really matters to me.”
This is all very big for Prescott in the narrative sense. It gives him a second career playoff win, not to mention the franchise’s first road playoff win since the 1992 season. For it to come against Tom Brady, ruining the legend’s perfect career record against Dallas, makes it all the sweeter.
Of course, those are all outside talking points. Far more important to the postseason picture are the other performances we saw at Raymond James Stadium, as Prescott wasn’t the only one to ease some concerns. Crucial to his own performance was a clinic from the Dallas offensive line, which has struggled with injuries throughout the last month. The injury bug didn’t even let up in this one, as Jason Peters exited his second start of the season with a hip injury.
No worries. Enter Connor McGovern, who began the night as the team’s fullback, as the Cowboys adjusted on the fly by plugging him in at left guard and kicking Tyler Smith from left guard to left tackle. None of that even includes the ongoing wrinkle of moving mainstay left tackle Tyron Smith to the right side, where he turned in his best performance of his injury-shortened season.
The results haven’t been good for much of the last month; they were great on Monday. Outside of the one early sack, Prescott was hardly touched all night. Even more encouraging, Dallas churned out its most productive rushing performance since Dec. 18.
If all of that wasn’t enough, it’d be unfair to omit a dominant performance from a defense that had lost a lot of its trademark bite over the last six weeks. The Cowboys limped into this game having registered just six sacks in their last five games — a far cry from their near-historic pace from earlier in the year. And while they did only register two sacks of Brady, the Cowboys flustered him into an ineffective performance for much of the night. The Buccaneers went to halftime with no points and an abysmal 120 yards of offense, with a crucial miss coming when Brady lofted an easy interception to Jayron Kearse in the back of the end zone.
“It’s great to end streaks and start new traditions around here,” joked Micah Parsons.
With all of these good things said, it wouldn’t be the Cowboys without something to worry about. And for every doubt Dak and his teammates erased, there is now the question of the Cowboys’ kicking situation. Steady for so much of this season, Brett Maher missed a gut-wrenching four straight extra points in this outing — a total disaster that was only slightly lessened by a make in his final attempt. That’ll prompt plenty of hand-wringing as well as speculation about what to do moving forward.
Those are Tuesday problems. On a Monday night, under the brightest lights, there were plenty of doubts about these Dallas Cowboys. From Dak Prescott right on down the roster, they answered them one by one.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.
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