The playoffs have arrived upon us in full force, Cowboys Nation. With the regular season now firmly planted in the rearview mirror, including the Cowboys’ ugly loss to the Commanders to wrap up, the focus now shifts to this upcoming Monday and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Those Buccaneers, the very same in which the Cowboys opened the season with, have had anything but a consistent season. At 8-9 they’re the only team in the playoffs with a record below .500 after losing to the Falcons in Week 18.
The race for a spot at State Farm Stadium begins on Super Wild Card Weekend from Raymond James Stadium. These are the five storylines for the Cowboys and Buccaneers.
- The Cowboys have been without a couple of key contributors in recent weeks, but it appears some much-needed reinforcements will be ready to go against the Bucs. Leighton Vander Esch, Tyler Biadasz and Johnathan Hankins could all be active, with head coach Mike McCarthy saying he was “very optimistic” about each returning in time.
- The cornerback spot has been an area of concern since the midpoint of the season with the season-ending injuries to both Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown, leaving the Cowboys to turn to some combination of Nahshon Wright, Kelvin Joseph among others. Rookie DaRon Bland has been outstanding, leading the team with five interceptions, but Dallas could insert newly signed former All-Pro and Pro Bowler Xavier Rhodes. Owner/general manager Jerry Jones told 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday that “It wouldn’t surprise me at all for him to be in the active group.”
- Sticking with Jones, he also told 105.3 The Fan that McCarthy’s job status will not hinge on whether or not the Cowboys defeat the Buccaneers and advance to the NFC Divisional round for the first time since 2018. “No, I don’t even want to … no. That’s it,” Jones said. “I don’t need to go into all the positives or minuses. I’ve got a lot more to evaluate Mike McCarthy on than this playoff game.”
- Dak Prescott’s interceptions, it’s the elephant in the room. Prescott threw his league-leading 15th interception on Sunday against the Commanders, only adding to his career high this season despite missing five games. He threw one against Tampa way back in Week 1 before leaving with a broken right thumb but vowed after the loss to Washington to clean up the picks. “It stinks,” Prescott said. “… I’ve got to get better at it. This won’t continue… I’ve been having to get back up all my life.”
- Will the running game return? Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard have been one of the best 1-2 punches in all of the NFL this season but have gone cold as of late. In their final two games of the regular season against the Titans and Commanders (albeit against two stout run defenses and without Pollard in the former) they compiled just 151 yards combined. In their battle in the season opener, Tampa allowed just 71 yards to Dallas on the ground.
- If the Cowboys were battling injuries heading into the playoffs, then the Buccaneers have all sorts of question marks on key players. Left tackle Donovan Smith, defensive tackle Vita Vea, cornerback Carlton Davis III, and receiver Julio Jones are all battling injuries to some degree. Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen seems like a long shot to return after having his 21-day window to return to practice being opened after missing the entire season with a knee injury.
- Don’t let the eye-test fool you – Tom Brady has still been an exceptional quarterback by most standards, maybe just not quite to the level he has produced for 20 seasons. Brady still threw for almost 4,700 yards and 25 touchdowns, both of which were good for spots in the top-10 in each category, while also leading the league in pass attempts. Also, and probably most noteworthy, the Cowboys are still searching for their first win as a franchise over Brady. The 45-year-old is 7-0 all-time against Dallas but has never faced the Cowboys in the playoffs during his illustrious career.
- The overall offense for the Bucs has not been up to the standard that we have grown accustomed to, particularly since the arrival of Brady. Tampa ranks towards the bottom in points per game this season and are just middle of the pack in terms of third down efficiency and yards per play. Part of the issue? The Bucs’ lack of a running game ranked dead last in every major category, including yards per game, yards per play, touchdowns, total yards, and attempts per game.
- Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Kellen Moore mentioned the challenge that both linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White can present in stopping the run and defending the pass, and he is certainly onto something. Tampa has been a top-10 team against the opposing team’s pass attack and in sacks with 45, with White and David combining for 8.5 sacks while being tied for the team lead in tackles with 124 each.
- The same thing that was said about Brady above could be said for Mike Evans as well. The former All-Pro and Pro Bowler still racked up over 1.00 yards and averaged almost 15 yards a catch, but only wrangled in six touchdown receptions. Against the Cowboys in Week 1, Evans brought in five catches for 71 yards and a touchdown, but if you go back to the 2021 season opener in Tampa, Evans was held to just 24 yards on three catches.