The final game of Super Wild Card Weekend pits the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Dallas Cowboys.
These two teams met back in Week 1, when Tampa beat Dallas 19-3 in one of the most embarrassing games of the season for the Cowboys -- a game that ended with Dak Prescott suffering a broken thumb that looked like it might end the Cowboys' chances of even making it to where they are now. 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 while the defense backslid. The Cowboys now enter the rematch as a road favorite.
The Buccaneers were certainly one of the NFL's most disappointing teams this season, ending the year with an 8-9 record and getting into the postseason only by virtue of having played in arguably the league's worst division. And yet, none of that matters what you get to the tournament. They have an opportunity now to play a home game, and to make up for what they couldn't do throughout the regular season.
So, which of these two teams will advance to take on the 49ers next weekend? We'll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Monday, Jan. 9 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa)
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: 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 play. Narrow it down to just the games after Dak Prescott returned from injury, and the Cowboys basically matched the Bills for second in EPA per play.
But there's still something about their offense that leaves one cold. They can go through stretches where they look quite bad, and struggle to get the ball to their most explosive playmakers. That happened in their playoff loss against the 49ers last season, when Tony Pollard received just six total touches and CeeDee Lamb was targeted five times, compared with 13 touches (for 35 yards) for Ezekiel Elliott and a combined 18 targets for the likes of Dalton Schultz and Cedrick Wilson. The Cowboys limped their way to 307 total yards and 17 points, and got sent home early in embarrassing fashion.
This season, they mostly avoided those types of games... except for bookending the season with them against the Buccaneers in Week 1 and the Commanders in Week 18. Those might have been the two worst games of Prescott's entire career (by EPA per dropback, 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 have a hope of winning this game on the road. They need to 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 contest. The offensive line's decline over the second half of the season (and Tyron Smith's relative struggles switching back to the right side after a Hall of Fame career on the left) led to a decline in rushing effectiveness, and Prescott's newfound aggression has had its positives (more explosive plays) and drawbacks (more picks).
The way for Dallas to win this game is by concentrating its offense around its explosive players. Matriculating the ball downfield all game long plays into Tampa's hands. Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore, and Co. need to avoid the temptation to lean on what is familiar and safe (Zeke runs on first-and-10, checkdowns to Schultz over the middle, etc.), and instead try to press the advantage they have in this contest.
When the Buccaneers have the ball
The Buccaneers offense this season has not looked all that much like what we saw during the first two years of the Tom Brady era. In 2020 and 2021, Tampa checked in 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 play. This season, the Buccaneers ranked 15th in yards, 25th in points, 16th in DVOA, and 22nd in EPA per play.
The issues along the offensive line -- Ali Marpet's retirement, Ryan Jensen's knee injury, the loss of Alex Cappa in free agency, Tristan Wirfs' injuries, Donovan Smith's precipitous decline -- were evident for most of the season, and they impacted every aspect of the offense.
The run game was pretty much a disaster for the entire season. Tampa ranked 30th in rush offense DVOA, and only two NFL teams averaged fewer yards before contact per carry (1.16), according to Tru Media. The Dallas defense actually finished the season ranked fifth in rush defense DVOA, but the Bucs ran all over them when these two teams met back in Week 1, with Leonard Fournette turning his 21 carries into 127 yards. (Fournette then averaged 3.2 yards per carry over the rest of the season. His 127 yards against Dallas accounted for 19% of his total rushing yards all year.)
Tampa also found itself unable to push the ball down the field in the passing game 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 average pass traveled just 6.83 yards in the air this season, according to Tru Media. Just 1.0.4% of his passes traveled at least 20 yards downfield, a steep drop from a high of 15.4% during Tampa's Super Bowl season. The one time it really looked like the Bucs could get the ball downfield was two weeks ago against the Panthers, when Brady and Mike Evans repeatedly torched poor C.J. Henderson, who gave up 7 catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns when in coverage vs. Evans.
The Cowboys have been very vulnerable to downfield passes in recent weeks, but it's mostly been teams targeting whichever cornerback is aligned across from Trevon Diggs. (If the two matchups between these two teams over the past two seasons are any indication, Diggs will shadow Evans. In those two games, Evans has totaled 8 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown.) Since Anthony Brown was lost for the season, Dallas has tried Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, Mackensie Alexander, and Trevon Mullen, and none of it has worked. Xavier Rhodes has been getting work in that spot during practices, and he might get the first opportunity on Monday night. Brady has to be willing to work that matchup with Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, Julio Jones, or whomever else aligns across from Rhodes (or whatever corner the Cowboys throw out there).
The way Dallas can mitigate all this is by rediscovering its pass rush, which has disappeared down the stretch of the season. After recording multiple sacks in each of the first 12 games of the season, Dallas has two sack-less games in its last five, and totaled just six sacks in those five contests. Prior to that, the Cowboys had averaged 4 per game. (Interestingly, the Cowboys still consistently got pressure during that stretch; they were just unable to turn that pressure into sacks.) Unless Micah Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Sam Williams, and Dante Fowler dominate the game up front, it might be difficult for Dallas to deal with things on the back end.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Cowboys 26