The Tampa Bay Buccaneers qualified for the playoffs for the third straight season in 2022 but then made their quickest exit in that span with a dispiriting 31-14 loss to the visiting Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card Round on Monday night. The Buccaneers had earned a home game to start the postseason with their second consecutive NFC South title but were beaten soundly by a Cowboys team they had defeated by a 19-3 score in Week One.
"Big credit to them," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "They executed both sides of the ball. They were great in the red zone, scoring and defending the red zone. Dak [Prescott] got the ball out and found some places, but we made our own blunders well enough to help them along. But they deserve all the credit.
The Cowboys will head to San Francisco next weekend to take on the 49ers in the Divisional Round. The Buccaneers will head into an offseason filled with uncertainty, including the unknown future of 45-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, whose contract expires in March.
"That's not the way we wanted to end it," said Brady. "I give them a lot of credit – they played a good game. They made a lot more plays than we did. So, rough night.
"I'm going to go home and get a good night's sleep, as much as I can tonight. There's been a lot of focus on this game. One day at a time, truly."
The Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV at the end of the 2020 season and tied for the NFL's best regular-season record in 2021 before falling to the eventual-champion Los Angeles Rams on a last second field goal in the Divisional Round. The team had hopes of a deep playoff run in 2022, even after winning the NFC South with an 8-9 record, but will now turn its attention to 2023.
"Obviously [it's] not good enough because it's not where we want to be," said Bowles. "We fell short two years in a row. You like the courage, you like the fight but we've got to get better in a lot of areas and we'll get to work on that."
An already deflating evening took a somber turn with three minutes to play when WR Russell Gage suffered an injury with three minutes to play and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher board and a cart. Bowles indicated that the primary diagnosis was a concussion.
"They took him to the hospital right now, he has a concussion," said Bowles immediately after the game. "They'll also test him for potential neck injuries. His fingers were moving when he was down there; I don't know about the rest."
Both teams got off to a slow start on offense, with four straight punts to start the game, but while Dak Prescott and the Cowboys eventually found their groove Brady and the Buccaneers never did the same. The Cowboys' overall yardage edge of 425 to 386 wasn't overwhelming, but they dominated in the red zone and completed seven of 13 third downs, plus two of two fourth-down tries. Dallas scored four touchdowns in four red zone trips while the Bucs were just one of three. Tampa Bay failed to score on a pair of first-and-goal situations, one on an end-zone interception by S Jayron Kearse in the first quarter and one on a failed fourth down midway through the final period.
"Every now and then you're going to throw an interception," said Bowles. "Again, they're a great red zone defense. We didn't score when we were down there. They denied us. Obviously, turning over the ball doesn't help any. It didn't help tonight."
After winning Super Bowl LV in Brady's first season with the team and tying for the NFL's best regular-season record at 13-4 in 2021, the 2022 Buccaneers struggled to find any offensive consistency and saw their per-game scoring drop by nearly two touchdowns from the previous two seasons. Those struggles continued on Monday night as the Buccaneers were shut out in the first half while the visitors built a 24-0 lead.
Prescott shook off a slow start to complete 25 of 33 passes for 305 yards and thre four touchdowns, while also running seven times for 24 yards and a score. He hooked up with TE Dalton Schultz seven times for 95 yards and two score and also threw touchdown passes to wideouts CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. The Cowboys also ran for 128 yards on 35 carries, led by Tony Pollard's 77 yards on 15 totes.
The Buccaneers' early deficit and difficulties in the red zone forced them to mostly abandon the running game, and Brady ended up throwing 66 passes, his most in any game in his career, regular season or postseason. He previously threw 65 passes in a 2012 loss to San Francisco and 62 in the famous comeback win over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI. Brady complete 35 of those 66 tosses for 351 yards, connecting on touchdowns to Julio Jones and Cameron Brate, but was not pleased with the efficiency of the Bucs' passing attack.
"They played good defensively and put a lot of pressure on us and we just couldn't make enough plays," said Brady. "It was kind of typical of the way we played all year, just inefficient in the passing game and not really good in the running game. It's hard to beat good teams like that."
Lavonte David led the Buccaneers with 14 tackles, including one for a loss, and Vita Vea recorded the team's lone sack of Prescott. The Buccaneers were close to full strength on defense with the return from injury from such regulars as Vea, Carlton Davis and Mike Edwards but weren't able to hold the Cowboys' offense at bay. Several of the Cowboys' touchdowns featured pass-catchers who were wide open.
"It's troublesome because those are Day-One installs," said Bowles. "We've got to execute better."
The Cowboys got the ball first after the Bucs won the toss and deferred, but Tampa Bay's defense made it a quick possession. Prescott threw on all three downs but all was closely contested and incomplete. The resulting punt gave it back to the Buccaneers at their own 35. Tampa Bay's first offensive possession wasn't any better, as RB Rachaad White was dropped for a loss of three on first down and Brady's next two passes were incomplete.
The second Dallas possession started at its 29. Two runs made it third-and-seven and on third-down, Vea collapsed the pocket and swallowed Prescott up for an eight-yard sack. The Bucs' offense started its second possession at the Tampa Bay 41 after the Cowboys' second punt but once again went three-and-out. This time, Kearse broke up a short pass intended for Gage on third-and-five. Jake Camarda's 54-yard punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
Pollard got five yards on a toss-sweep left to start the Cowboys' third drive and Prescott hit Gallup on a deep out on the next play for the game's initial first down, out to the 40. Two snaps later, a roughing the passer penalty on Akiem Hicks took the ball all the way down to the Bucs' 40, and Pollard followed with an 18-yard run around left end. Two plays later, Prescott found a wide-open Dalton Schultz for a 22-yard touchdown to open the scoring. Kicker Brett Maher missed the extra point to the right to keep the Cowboys' lead to 6-0.
The Bucs got their first first down to start the next drive when White made a nice move after catching a short pass in the flat on third-and-seven to gain 11 yards. Two plays later, Brady threaded a hard flat pass between defenders to Godwin for 11 yards and a first down on the midfield stripe. White made two sharp cuts on the next play to take a handoff up the middle for 12 more, and three plays later Brady converted a third-and-six with a pass over the middle to WR Mike Evans for 12 yards to the Dallas 22. An incompletion and a short pass to Godwin put the Bucs into a third-and-four, and Brady made a keen improvisational play on a scramble and a flip to Godwin for an 11-yard gain down to the five. Unfortunately, after Parsons leapt to break up a first-down pass to Jones, Brady threw under pressure in Gage's direction and it was intercepted in the back of the end zone by Kearse.
The touchback put the ball at the Dallas 20 and a flip to Ezekiel Elliott on third-and-one was enough to move the chains. Dallas went into a no-huddle attack but quickly faced a third-and-three at the 39, and Pollard made sliding catch in traffic for another first down. Prescott found WR T.Y. Hilton for 14 yards and then ran a well-conceived tight end screen to Jake Ferguson that resulted in a 34-yard gain down to the Bucs' six. A holding penalty backed Dallas up to the 14 but Pollard found a seam around right end back to the original line of scrimmage. Prescott kept the ball on an option run and got down to the one, and DL Logan Hall stonewalled Elliott on third-and-goal. The Cowboys went for it on fourth-and-goal and a play-action QB keeper by Prescott resulted in an easy touchdown and a 12-0 Dallas lead with six minutes left in the first half after Maher missed another extra point try.
The Bucs' next drive got off to a good start with a tunnel screen to Godwin that was good for nine yards, and Fournette took a shotgun handoff for six more on the next play. However, the Bucs then fell into a third-and-13 and a short pass over the middle to Godwin came up three yards short. The Bucs punted and the ball was fair caught at the Dallas nine.
The Cowboys got a quick first down out to the 20 and then Prescott hit Schultz down the seam for 20 more, which brought on the two-minute warning. DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches rushed Prescott into a hurried incompletion on second down, making it third-and-six and stopped the clock at 1:50. The Bucs flushed Prescott out of the pocket on third down but he was able to get around left end for a gain of 10 and a first down just across midfield. After an incompletion and a delay-of-game penalty, Prescott found Lamb down the middle for 20 yards then quickly fired another 13-yard strike to Gallup to make it first down at the Bucs' 17. Two plays later, Prescott scrambled left and fired off an 11-yard pass to Schultz just before hitting the sideline. Incredibly, Maher missed his third straight extra point try, making it 18-0 heading into the intermission. The Buccaneers used the last 30 seconds of the half to get to midfield but couldn't get off a Hail Mary pass as time expired.
The Bucs adopted a no-huddle approach to start the second half but had to punt after a three-and-out. Camarda's punt went out of bounds at the Dallas 14. Schultz made a juggling catch down the left sideline for 20 yards to start the next drive and Prescott scrambled for five yards on the next snap. On third-and-five, Prescott had time to survey the field and eventually found Lamb in an open zone for a gain of 26 to the Bucs' 28. Pollard broke tackles up the right sideline to get the ball down to the Bucs' four, and two plays later Prescott found Gallup for a two-yard score. Maher missed again, leaving the score at 24-0 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Early in the next drive, Godwin caught a pass on third down but appeared to fumble, with Dallas recovering. The play was eventually reviewed and it was ruled that Godwin was down by contact, but a personal foul on Ryan Jensen still applied, making it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 14. Completions to Julio Jones and Fournette produced one first down but the Bucs then faced third-and-10 at their 29. Brady's next pass was incomplete down the middle and the Bucs had to punt.
Two Elliott runs and two Schultz catches produced a pair of Dallas first downs on the ensuing drive, getting the ball out to the Dallas 48. But the Bucs defense held from there, helped by a hustling Lavonte David tackle on Pollard on first down, and Dallas punted it down to the Bucs' five-yard line.
The Bucs converted a third-and-seven and got out of the shadow of their own goal line on White's 11-yard catch-and-run over the middle. Brady then found Godwin for a gain of 16 and Russell Gage for seven more to get it to the 42. Two more short completions got the ball over midfield but a diving break-up by S Isreal Mukuamu made it third-and-seven at the Dallas 48. Brady then found Evans on a crossing route to make it first-and-10 at the Dallas 30 on a gain of 18 that included a vicious stiff-arm at the end. Brady then went deep down the left sideline to Jones, who dived to haul in the 30-yard touchdown. The Bucs went for two but failed to connect.
Pro Bowl return man KaVontae Turpin brought the ensuing kickoff out to the Dallas 34 and Prescott hit Noah Brown on a sideline pass for 15 yards to start the next drive. The Cowboys then faced a third-and-six at the Bucs' 47 and Prescott kept the chains moving with a quick pass to Gallup on a slant route for 12 yards. Pollard powered up the middle for 11 yards to the Bucs' 24, and on third-and-nine from the 23 a swing pass to Pollard came up three yards short. The Cowboys went for it on fourth down and Lamb popped wide open down the left side for an easy 18-yard score with 10 minutes to play.
Brady converted a third-and-three early in the next drive with a seven-yard strike to Godwin, then hit Evans twice in a row on the right sideline for gains of 13 and 20 yards to get the ball into Cowboys territory. A 15-yard Cade Otton catch-and-run took it down to the 22, and two plays later Otten snagged another pass over the middle to get the ball down to the two. After two incompletions in Jones' direction, Brady took a sack back at the 11-yard line. On fourth-and-goal, Brady had the pocket collapse on him almost immediately and his incompletion gave the ball over on downs.
Though the clock was their enemy at this point, the Bucs did manage to get the ball quickly on a three-and-out with just under five minutes to play. WR Deven Thompkins' 14-yard punt return gave the Bucs a starting position of their own 48. Runs of nine and eight yards by White helped get the ball across midfield and his seven-yard jaunt on third-and-one made it first-and-10 at the Cowboys 19 with three minutes to go. After the play that led to Gage being carted off, Brady threw twice to Jones to make it first-and-goal at the eight. On the next snap, Brady hit Brate on an out and the veteran tight end was able to pus the ball over the left front pylon. A rollout pass to Evans converted the two-point conversion to make it 31-14 with just over two minutes left.
The Bucs then successfully converted an onside kick, with Giovani Bernard recovering the loose ball at the 50-yard line. Brady then went over the top to Evans down the right sideline but the ball was just out of reach, off the receiver's fingertips. After a sack on second down back at the 47, the Bucs faced a third-and-18 and got 12 on a catch by Jones, but Brady's fourth-down pass to Jones was incomplete and the Cowboys killed the rest of the clock.