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2022 NFL season: Five things to watch for in Cowboys-Buccaneers on Super Wild Card Weekend

Dallas Cowboys
2022 · 12-5-0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2022 · 8-9-0

Tom Brady loves playing America's Team.

The G.O.A.T. is 7-0 in his career against Dallas, the most wins without a loss by any quarterback versus the Cowboys (Joe Montana is the only other at 5-0). But Brady has never faced Dallas in the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys are looking to snap their streak of playoff road futility. Jerry Jones' club has lost eight consecutive road postseason games. Their last win as a visitor came in 1992. The Cowboys are 4-11 in the playoffs since 1996, the third-worst record in NFL -- only the Lions (0-5) and the Commanders (2-6) have worse records. Dallas has lost each of their last three playoff games as a wild-card team -- 1999 (at Minnesota), 2003 (at Carolina), 2006 (at Seattle).

The Bucs and Cowboys tussled way back in Week 1, a 19-3 Tampa win in which Dak Prescott broke his right thumb, causing him to miss the next five games.

The Bucs navigated a roller-coaster season, falling to 3-5 at Halloween and stumbling to an 8-9 record, Brady's first-ever losing season. But it was enough to secure a division title in the weak NFC South. Tampa needed some extraordinary comebacks to earn several wins while getting scorched by contenders. But Brady saw his connection with Mike Evans come to life down the stretch, and the use of up-tempo has served Tampa well.

The Cowboys generated two separate four-game win streaks, running to their second straight 12-5 season under Mike McCarthy. Behind strong defensive performances, Dallas went 4-1 with Prescott on the shelf. Upon the starter's return, the Cowboys authored several blowout wins, including against the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings. But McCarthy's club enters the postseason laying an egg in Washington in Week 18. Can they wipe that bad taste out of their mouths with a road win in Tampa?

The Buccaneers are one of four teams ever to make the playoffs with a losing record (excluding strike-shortened seasons). Two of the previous three won a home game in the Wild Card Round (Seahawks in 2010; Panthers in 2014). Can Brady and the Bucs make it three of four?

Here are five things to watch for when the Cowboys visit the Buccaneers on Monday during Super Wild Card Weekend:

  1. Cowboys pass rush versus Brady's quick game. TB12 has navigated offensive line issues, exacerbated by injuries, by getting the ball out lightning-quick to avoid hits. Brady, who set single-season records for completions (490) and attempts (733), had a 55.3 quick pass percentage in 2022, the highest in the league, per Next Gen Stats. His 2,547 passing yards on quick passes were the most in the NFL, and 17 TDs were the second most. At 45, Brady wants to avoid hits like the plague. Getting the ball out immediately is his best strategy behind a banged-up O-line. Monday, he'll face a Cowboys defense that can menace the passer with Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence wreaking havoc. Dallas generated a 13.5 QB pressure percentage on quick passes, second-best in the NFL. The Cowboys' pass rush will be Sunday's biggest key. Dallas led the NFL in QB pressures at 35.0 in 2022. Parsons could destroy the Bucs' game plan with his uncanny ability to win immediately and live in the backfield. If center Ryan Jensen can return from a season-long knee injury -- the Pro Bowler was activated from IR on Monday morning -- it would be a big boon for a Bucs offensive line that continues to battle through injuries that have led to a wobbly offense.
  2. Will Dak Prescott's turnover deluge continue? Prescott tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions in 12 games played. His five missed games were the most by a player to lead the NFL in INTs in league history. Prescott's 3.8 percent INT rate was the highest by a QB to make the postseason since Peyton Manning's 5.1 in 2015. In recent weeks, many of his turnovers have simply been awful decisions, particularly in Week 18, showing signs of pressing. But when he's right, Prescott is capable of dicing up defenses. His 23 pass TDs since returning from injury in Week 7 are tied for second-most. The Cowboys lead the NFL in scoring offense (32.4 PPG) and third-down conversion percentage (52.3) since Prescott returned (second with 78.6 red-zone TD percentage). The key for Dallas will be keeping Bucs pass rushers at bay. Prescott has struggled under pressure, completing just 49.5 percent of his passes with five TDs and eight INTs for a 52.5 passer rating. Tampa's 25.1 pressure rate is the sixth-lowest in the NFL. If the Cowboys give Prescott time and he avoids turnovers, Dallas' offense could roll.
  3. Bucs pass attack versus suspect Cowboys secondary. Injuries left the Cowboys secondary weak down the stretch. With offenses able to take advantage of corners, Dallas allowed 10 more points per game and generated 2.8 fewer sacks per game over its last five contests than its first 12 -- despite playing backup QBs in three straight games to end the season. The Cowboys desperately need their D-line to win quickly to help cover the secondary. If Brady has time, it could portend to big games from Evans, Chris Godwin and even Julio Jones. Facing Dallas' defense could keep the Bucs' deep passing attack surging. In the past two games, Brady earned a 64.3 completion percentage and 17.6 yards per attempt with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 147.3 passer rating on downfield passes (42.6 completion percent, 8.8 YPA, 2-6 TD-INT ratio, 64.1 passer rating in Weeks 1-16). The Brady-Evans connection struggled with chemistry most of the season but found its stride in recent weeks. Evans produced five receptions, 176 yards, and a career-high three touchdowns on downfield passes from Brady in Week 17 versus Carolina (he didn't play in Week 18). Can they pick up where they left off in the postseason?
  4. Will CeeDee Lamb have a playoff breakout? In last year's quick postseason exit, Lamb caught just one pass for 21 yards on five targets despite playing 60 snaps. That won't happen again. The Cowboys' clear go-to-target generated career highs with 107 catches for 1,359 yards and nine TDs this season. Lamb's ability to put defensive backs in a mixer and win at every level makes him one of the most dangerous weapons on the football field. The Cowboys' offense needs the third-year pro to have a big game Monday. He generated 34.7 percent of Dallas' receiving yards in 2022, the fourth-highest in the NFL. Expect to see McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore deploy Lamb from the slot liberally against the Bucs. Lamb led the NFL with 826 receiving yards aligned in the slot in 2022. Meanwhile, the Tampa defense struggled to defend players lined up inside, allowing a 73.1 completion percentage (last in the NFL), 1,475 passing yards (29th), 10 passing TDs (T-28th), and a 109.2 passer rating (30th) to players aligned in the slot. The matchup makes Lamb a prime candidate for a blowup performance.  
  5. Which run game will find a playoff gear? Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard shared carries in 2022, with Elliott generating 876 rushing yards and 12 TDs on 231 carries, while Pollard netted 1,007 yards and nine scores on 193 carries. Pollard not only represented the more efficient back, but his increased snaps offered more big-play potential than the plodding Elliott. Zeke averaged 2.7 yards per carry since Week 15 and has not surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark since Week 5, 2021 (28 games, including playoffs). Facing a middling Bucs defense, will the Cowboys continue to feed him, or will we see Pollard get more touches in space? For Tampa, the Bucs need "Playoff Lenny" to return. Leonard Fournette has scored six TDs in five playoff games with Tampa, earning his famous moniker during the Super Bowl run. Tampa's run game struggled most of the season, generating a league-worst 76.9 rushing yards per game -- second fewest by a playoff team in NFL history. But in Week 1, Fournette earned a season-high 127 rush yards against Dallas -- his only game over the 100-yard mark. All these weeks later, the Buccaneers offense would be much more potent with Fournette and Rachaad White churning out yards.

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