The final game of Super Wild Card Weekend pits the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Dallas Cowboys.
These two teams met in Week 1, when Tampa defeated Dallas 19-3 in one of the Cowboys’ most embarrassing games of the season – a game that ended with Dak Prescott suffering a broken thumb that seemed to spell the end of the Cowboys. mean. chances to even get to where they are today. We know what happened next: The Dallas defense and Cooper Rush stepped up and saved the season, then Prescott returned and took the offense to another level as the defense fell back. The Cowboys now go into the rematch as the road favorite.
The Buccaneers were certainly one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams this season. They finished the year with an 8–9 record, only getting into the postseason having played in arguably the worst division in the league. And yet none of that matters what you get to the tournament. They now have a chance to play a home game and make up for what they failed to do during the regular season.
So, which of these two teams will advance to the 49ers next weekend? We’ll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here’s how to watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Monday January 9 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Place: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa)
TV: ESP | Current: fuboTV (free trial)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Opportunities: Cowboys -2.5, O/U 45.5 (courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook)
When the Cowboys have the ball
Look at the overall numbers, and the Cowboys had one of the NFL’s best offenses this season, despite their starting quarterback missing a third of the year. They finished 11th in total yards and fourth in points, as well as seventh in Tru Media’s version of EPA per game. Narrow it down to just the games after Dak Prescott returned from injury, and the Cowboys basically tied the Bills for second in EPA per game.
But there’s still something about their offense that leaves you cold. They can go through stretches where they look pretty bad and struggle to get the ball to their most explosive playmakers. That happened last season in their playoff loss to the 49ers, when Tony Pollard got just six total touches and CeeDee Lamb was targeted five times, compared to 13 touches (for 35 yards) for Ezekiel Elliott and a combined 18 goals for under more Dalton. Schultz and Cedrick Wilson. The Cowboys limped their way for 307 yards and 17 points, and were embarrassingly sent home early.
This season, they mostly avoided those kinds of games… except they booked the season with them against the Buccaneers in Week 1 and the Commanders in Week 18. Those were arguably the two worst games of Prescott’s entire career (per dropback, according to EPA, they were sixth and fourth worst, according to Tru Media), as he combined to complete just 28 of 66 passes for 262 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Lamb had 7 catches for 81 yards and a score on 18 targets in those two games, while Pollard had 15 touches for 41 total yards.
Simply put, none of that can happen if the Cowboys are hoping to win this game along the way. They must be the team that led the league in scoring between Prescott’s return in Week 7 and Week 17, scoring at least 27 points in all but one game despite averaging 1.6 turnovers per game. The decline of the offensive line in the second half of the season (and Tyron Smith’s relative struggle to return to the right side after a Hall of Fame career on the left side) led to a decline in rushing effectiveness, and the newfound Prescott’s aggression had its upsides (more explosive play) and its downsides (more choices).
The way for Dallas to win this game is to focus his offense around his explosive players. Matriculating the ball downfield all game long plays in Tampa’s hands. Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore and Co. must resist the temptation to lean on what is known and safe (Zeke runs on first and ten, checkdowns to Schultz over the middle, etc.), and instead try to leverage the advantage they have in this match.
When the Buccaneers have the ball
The Buccaneers’ offense this season was nothing like what we saw during the first two years of the Tom Brady era. In 2020 and 2021, Tampa checked seventh and second in total yards, third and second in total points, third and first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and fifth and third in Tru Media’s version of EPA per game. This season, the Buccaneers ranked 15th in yards, 25th in points, 16th in DVOA and 22nd in EPA per game.
The problems along the offensive line – Ali Marpet’s retirement, Ryan Jensen’s knee injury, Alex Cappa’s loss in free agency, Tristan Wirfs’ injuries, Donovan Smith’s sudden decline – were apparent for most of the season and they affected every aspect of the crime.
The run game was a disaster for pretty much the entire season. Tampa was ranked 30th in DVOA, and only two NFL teams averaged fewer yards for contact per carry (1.16), according to Tru Media. The Dallas defense actually finished the season ranked fifth in the rush defense DVOA, but the Bucs ran over them when these two teams met in Week 1, with Leonard Fournette turning his 21 carries into 127 yards. (Fournette then averaged 3.2 yards per carry for the rest of the season. His 127 yards against Dallas accounted for 19% of his total rushing yards all year.)
Tampa also found himself unable to push the ball down the field in the passing play for most of the season. After Tom Brady averaged 9.06 air yards per attempt in 2020 and 8.07 per attempt last season, his pass averaged just 6.83 yards in the air this season, according to Tru Media. Only 1.0.4% of his passes went at least 20 yards down the field, a steep drop from a high of 15.4% during Tampa’s Super Bowl season. The only time it really looked like the Bucs could get the ball downfield was against the Panthers two weeks ago, when Brady and Mike Evans repeatedly fired poor CJ Henderson, who gave up 7 catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in cover against Evans.
The Cowboys have been all vulnerable to field passes in recent weeks, but it’s usually teams targeting the cornerback facing Trevon Diggs. (If the two matchups between these two teams over the past two seasons are any indication, Diggs will dwarf Evans. In those two games, Evans totaled 8 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown.) Since Anthony Brown for the season was lost, Dallas tried Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, Mackensie Alexander and Trevon Mullen, but nothing worked. Xavier Rhodes got work in that spot during practices and he might get the first chance on Monday night. Brady has to be willing to make that match with Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, Julio Jones or whoever opposite Rhodes (or whatever angle the Cowboys throw at that).
The way Dallas can mitigate all of this is to rediscover the pass rush, which has subsided over the course of the season. After recording multiple sacks in each of the first 12 games of the season, Dallas has two games without a sack in the last five, and only six sacks in total in those five games. Before that, the Cowboys averaged 4 per game. (Interestingly, the Cowboys still got constant pressure throughout that stretch; they just weren’t able to convert that pressure into sacks.) Unless Micah Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Sam Williams and Dante Fowler dominate the game up front, it could be hard for Dallas to handle things on the back end.
Recommended game | Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Cowboys 26