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The Cowboys Took the First Step Toward the Next Step in Tampa Bay

At last, Dallas did what it was supposed to in a playoff game: beat up a much worse team. And it couldn't have felt any better.
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Dak Prescott was spectacular on Monday. Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys are on to the second round of the NFL playoffs after demolishing Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-14. Here’s what got accomplished in Dallas’ first road playoff win since 1993.

Marched forward

In the end, I’ll remember the opening drive.

Plenty of things, of course: the big moments and bigger performances that added up to the most resounding playoff win in 13 years. Triumphs like these wash away any failure this side of a Brett Maher catastrophe (which, unfortunately, we’ll have to talk about in a bit). They don’t require you to commit the shortcomings to memory, because there’s nothing to dwell on. They are merely preambles to something greater, and preambles tend to be optional in the grand scheme of things.  

This one wasn’t. Because those three plays were, in the moment, everything we’ve known about this team for the past 27 years and cannot forget. Until further notice—until it finally happens—every conversation about this team is a conversation about its past, too. To talk Cowboys football is to extend chairs to specters, to pours drinks for ghosts. Every new failure has an antecedent, every promising moment its warning sign. It’s why no one had to ask why ESPN led off their telecast with a montage of playoff meltdowns past. They knew what they were doing. We did, too.

So, that opening series. A bootleg pass that clanked off CeeDee Lamb’s hands. A screen pass that Prescott sent a few stray inches to the left for another Lamb drop—catchable but hardly convenient. A slant that skimmed off T.Y. Hilton’s gloves. Three plays. Zero yards. Punt.

Whatever you didn’t want to believe about these Cowboys rushed to the surface. That they were losers, underachievers. Soft. This would be last year’s San Francisco game all over again, or perhaps the Rams defeat from 2019. The Green Bay games in 2014 and 2016? There’s a lot of heartbreak to cull from, and it can fester in a hurry on someone else’s field in the postseason. Plenty of other Cowboys teams would have been powerless to stop it from doing exactly that.

Not this one. In a matter of minutes, these Cowboys grabbed it by the root and yanked it out. Dak Prescott, the most scrutinized man in town, played arguably the finest playoff game of any Cowboys quarterback since Troy Aikman in the Super Bowl years—and, according to Aikman himself, arguably the best game of Prescott’s NFL career, too. (StrongSide’s Dan Morse will have much, much more on that tomorrow.)

Micah Parsons rampaged off the edge like the best defensive player in football. Dallas’ oldest (40-year-old Jason Peters) and youngest (21-year-old Tyler Smith) offensive linemen flipped spots seamlessly on the left side, while the two future Hall of Famers (Zack Martin and Tyron Smith) turned back the clock on the right. Key defensive pieces (Jayron Kearse and Dorance Armstrong) made plays. So did mid-tier ones (Leighton Vander Esch). And developing ones, too (Israel Mukuamu and Chauncey Golston). Mike McCarthy smashed curses big and small: the road playoff curse, the Tom Brady curse, the blue uniforms curse, the grass field curse.

You must travel back to 2010, and the 34-14 demolition of Philadelphia, to find a win this impressive. But you might need to go back to the first Super Bowl win of the Johnson era to locate one so cathartic. We are a ways from proclaiming this team different in the grandest sense. They still have not won a Super Bowl since 1995. For that matter, they haven’t won back-to-back postseason games, either. But for once, Dallas did what it was supposed to in a playoff game: line up against an inferior opponent and beat the hell out of it.

This is something. This is a start. The start it needs to finally deliver that sixth Lombardi Trophy, be it this year or down the road. That would be a very different outcome than we’ve grown accustomed to, and the only way to get there is to send those spirits packing. You do that by playing differently, too—emphatically. Finally, the Cowboys are on their way to doing just that.

Busted up Tom Brady

Late in the first half, with Dallas leading 6-0 and Brady marching Tampa Bay up field, the ESPN broadcast ran a series of graphics extolling Tom Brady’s ball security in the red zone. As it happens, Brady hadn’t been picked off inside the opponent’s 20 since he joined the Buccaneers—a streak of more than 400 throws. His last such interception came in 2019, when he was still a New England Patriot.

Naturally, this happened:

That was the beginning of the end for Tom Brady, Cowboys Bogeyman. Monday was the football equivalent of Phil Jackson coaching against the Mavericks in 2011: a longtime Dallas nemesis having his aura deflated like a punctured tire.

The Bucs went into halftime trailing 18-0, the first time a Brady team has been shut out in the first half of a playoff game since his playoff debut in 2002. He ended the game with 66 passes, the most of his playoff career. They yielded little apart from a pair of irrelevant touchdown drives late in the third and fourth quarters. Brady was harangued by a Cowboys pass rush that didn’t even need to sack him until the fourth quarter. He rarely pushed the ball down field. He was toothless.

Maybe this is finally the end for a player who dedicated a docuseries to the idea of outrunning time. Or maybe he’s going back for more next season, given that he is, as our Austin Ngaruiya put it, “extremely divorced.” But whether or not he’s in uniform next year, any future Tom Brady mystique against Dallas won’t be. The Cowboys ended that last night.

Hey, at least his slide tackle remains top-notch:

Blended the old and the new

As Austin noted heading into this game, the Cowboys have had the league’s most prolific offense since Dak Prescott returned from his thumb injury. They had the most prolific offense last season, too. And among the prominent wrinkles that didn’t carry over from one campaign to the next was the jumbo package featuring guard Connor McGovern at fullback.

Perhaps this was strategy. Perhaps it was a byproduct of the Cowboys’ depleted offensive line pressing McGovern into starting duties for much of the season. Either way, it was on display early in the first quarter, both in the run game and—wisely—on pass plays, too, to keep the defense off balance.

Here’s what was different: Tony Pollard was the primary back on a number of those plays. One year after earning four carries in the loss to San Francisco, Pollard hit that number on the Cowboys’ first touchdown drive en route to 18 touches on the night. That number would have been higher, too, had the outcome been in any measure of doubt heading into the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys remain three wins away from that elusive Super Bowl, and any number of things could do them in. But unlike last year, you can rest assured that one of them won’t be a refusal to let their best running back touch the ball. Progress!

Punished a fashion faux pas

Karmically, the Bucs were doomed the moment this happened:

Never go full Wade without Bennett Salvatore at the ready. And while we’re on the subject of Dwyane Wade, why the hell is he selling his burgers in Dallas ghost kitchens anyway?

Made the wrong kind of history in the kicking game

One week after a bizarre shanked extra point against Washington, Brett Maher whiffed on three more in the first half of this game. That matched his regular-season total and made him the first NFL player ever to miss three extra points in a playoff game.

It led me to tweet this:

And Dallas Texas TV to tweet this:

And, most importantly, Prescott to scream this:

McCarthy begged to differ on Dallas’ next touchdown drive. Out came Maher, who—wait for it—shanked a fourth. That made him the first player to miss four extra points in an NFL game, regular season or playoff, since 1932, which happens to be the year that stat began being tracked in the first place.

One of the team’s most consistent performers has become its least reliable in record time. Chalk it up to the dreaded yips? The real question is whether Dallas tries out replacement kickers prior to the playoff rematch with San Francisco. If nothing else, it’s a legitimate conversation just eight days after Maher looked untouchable heading into Washington. It’s a sad conversation, too.

So if this is the end for Brett Maher, let’s remember the good moments:

Moved on to San Francisco

It gets tougher from here. Much, much tougher. Plenty of Jake Kemp’s deserved confidence in his pregame column—a StrongSide all-timer—was rooted in Tampa Bay being a pretty mediocre football team. The San Francisco 49ers are far from that.

Tampa fielded the league’s worst rushing offense; San Francisco ranked eighth, and that number is artificially low given that Christian McCaffrey arrived only at the trade deadline. (San Francisco put up an NFL-high 181 yards during the wild-card round.) Speaking of McCaffrey, he’s one of four Pro Bowl-caliber skill players in the Niners’ offense, all of whom are more athletic than their counterparts on the Bucs.

Tampa’s defense was very good—ninth-best in the league in yards per game and 13th in points. San Francisco topped the league in both categories. Its best defender, Nick Bosa, will likely edge Parsons to be named the league’s defensive player of the year. And the man at the controls, Kyle Shanahan, is a drastically better coach than Todd Bowles, which you can probably divine from turning the last pick in this year’s draft, Brock Purdy, into a convincing starting quarterback on the fly after the 49ers’ first- and second-stringers went down for the season.

All of which is why the 49ers are riding an 11-game winning streak that dates back before Halloween.

So Dallas deserves to be the underdog next week just as much it earned favorite status going into Tampa Bay. But there is a next week. And given what we’ve seen from the Cowboys in recent years, that is a hell of a thing.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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