The stage is set in prime-time. The Buccaneers and Cowboys will meet in the postseason as they conclude the NFL's "Super Wild Card Weekend" in a Monday Night Football showdown at Raymond James Stadium. The Cowboys have not won a road playoff game since 1992 and they will look to reverse history come Monday. The Bucs drew the 12-5 Cowboys because they were the fourth seed out of the four NFC division winners. Both clubs have evolved since the Week One clash, and they will strive to keep their greater ambition alive with a victory in the single elimination tournament. The past becomes irrelevant and the focus narrows on what is ahead: The Lombardi Trophy. The Bucs accomplished their first goal, winning a second-consecutive division title, and will lock in on the second, making it to the Divisional Round. After a week of preparation, here is what the Wild Card clash comes down to:
4 Stats that Matter
- Dak Prescott tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions in 2022 (Texans, Davis Mills). Prescott has thrown at least one interception in seven-straight games entering the playoffs – tied for third-longest streak entering the playoffs since 1990.
- The Cowboys lead the NFL in scoring offense (32.4 points per game) and third-down conversion percentage (52.3) since Prescott returned in Week 7.
- The Buccaneers' defense forced three-and-outs on 39.6 percentage of drives (second in the NFL). Tampa Bay's defense allowed a 36.9 third-down percentage in 2022 (sixth in the NFL).
- The Cowboys' defense leads the NFL in quarterback pressure percentage (35.0) in 2022. Dallas led the NFL in takeaways in each of its last two seasons (2020-21) - first team since the 1972-74 Steelers to lead the NFL in takeaways in consecutive seasons.
3 Lineup Notes
- It appears that the Buccaneers will have both of their starting offensive tackles back for Monday Night's Wild Card matchup against the Cowboys as Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs have practiced this week in a full capacity. The question mark surrounds the middle of the line at center. Starting center Robert Hainsey has been limited by a hamstring injury and starting left guard Nick Leverett, who is also the replacement at center, was downgraded from limited participation to non-participation on Thursday with knee and shoulder injuries. Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen has not played a single snap this season after suffering a significant knee injury in training camp but could be activated from injured reserve prior to Monday night's game after passing mandatory tests. "We haven't ruled anybody out," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "Everybody's available. We'll see who's the healthiest and we'll talk about it and make that decision. They're all sore. They've got two more days, two-and-a-half more days to go."
- There is no question regarding the status of Bucs' lockdown cornerback Carlton Davis, who has missed the previous two matchups due to a shoulder injury. Bowles confirmed he is "good to go" for Monday's meeting. On Saturday's final injury report, two players were listed as doubtful for the Buccaneers: guard Nick Leverett and tight end Kyle Rudolph. If Leverett cannot go, rookie Luke Goedeke would likely be the starter at left guard. If Rudolph, who has been a boost in pass blocking, is sidelined for the Wild Card clash, rookies Cade Otton and Ko Kieft would see an increase in snaps.
- For the Cowboys, cornerback Trayvon Mullen was ruled out after not participating in practice on Friday and Saturday due to an illness. Center Tyler Biadasz (ankle), defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (foot), tackle Tyron Smith (knee) and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (neck) all fully participated in practice on Saturday without restrictions and will play on Monday night. Micah Parsons was added to the report on Saturday after not participating in practice for personal reasons.
2 Challenges Presented by the Cowboys
Offensively, the Dallas Cowboys finished the 2022 regular season fourth in scoring (27.5) and ninth in the league with 135.2 rushing yards per game. Since Dak Prescott's return from a thumb injury in Week Seven, the Cowboys' offense catapulted forward, garnering a league-best in points per game (35.1) and third-down percentage (52.3%). Despite the recent struggles with Prescott throwing a league-high 15 interceptions and an ineffective ground game since Terence Steele's injury in Week 14 (ranked 31st in first-down runs with 2.91 per carry), the Cowboys still have a loaded roster. Two of the playmaking weapons in Kellen Moore's arsenal are running back Tony Pollard and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Both aforementioned stars only combined for eight touches in the Wild Card round a year ago against San Francisco. Dallas will try to get the ball in their hands early and often, utilizing their ability to shake defenders in space for yards-after-contact. Pollard, who complement's Ezekiel Elliott's power through tackles and prowess in short-yardage situations, is a dynamic threat. He possesses rare acceleration and can quickly get to the second level with a slash-run style. Pollard also poses an upside as a receiving threat out of the backfield, working the field on dumps, wheels, jet sweep options and can be split wide as a receiver. Lamb has an array of coveted traits at the position: elite catch radius, ability to adjust to the ball in flight, body control and nuanced route-running. The club's trade of Amari Cooper in the offseason was less of an indictment on Cooper and more contingent upon the Cowboys' belief in Lamb as a true No. 1. Lamb evades tacklers with savviness after the catch, is sudden in and out of breaks and is adept at finding soft spots in zone when defensive backs do not challenge at the line of scrimmage. Both Pollard and Lamb concluded the 2022-23 season eclipsing the 1,000-yard marker and will be a point of emphasis for the Bucs' defense come Monday night in prime-time.
Defensively, the Cowboys led the league in takeaways (33) for the second-straight year under the tutelage of Dan Quinn, finished sixth in scoring defense (20.1) and produced the second-best sacks-per-pass-play rate at 9.82%. Micah Parsons, the team's sensational hybrid linebacker/edge rusher, sets the tone. Parsons had 13.5 sacks and 27 quarterback hits in 2022 (both top seven in NFL) and recorded six games with at least 2.0 (most in the NFL). Additionally, the Defensive Player of the Year candidate totaled 70 pressures in 2022 (third in the NFL). He is the focal point of Quinn's blitz/stunt packages with rare burst off the line of scrimmage. Parsons can wreak havoc from anywhere on the line, beating offensive linemen with vertical speed. Defensive end Dorance Armstrong had a breakout year with 8.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits – both second on the team. Safety Donovan Wilson became a dominant force, bolstering the defense on blitzes and in run support in the box. He posted 5.0 sacks in 2022, the most in the NFL among defensive backs. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch finished second on the team with 90 tackles, despite missing the previous three games. His emergence has freed Parsons to specialize as a pass rusher. Over the last five games as injuries sidelined Vander Esch (shoulder stinger) and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (pectoral strain), the Cowboys' defense allowed 10 more points per game and registered 2.8 fewer sacks per game over Weeks 14-18 than the first 12 weeks of the season. Dallas is expected to receive reinforcements in the Wild Card round with both Hankins and Vander Esch on track to return for the postseason. The Cowboys have struggled to find a replacement at left cornerback for Anthony Brown which has led to chunk yardage being given up on pass plays, and opponents have found success on designed perimeter runs by hooking the defensive ends, getting offensive linemen on the Cowboys' linebackers, and forcing cornerbacks to make tackles in space. Despite the inefficiencies, Dan Quinn will have something up his sleeve in terms of disguised coverages and exotic looks up front featuring Micah Parsons and company.
1 Key Thought from Head Coach Todd Bowles:
On keeping track of Cowboys' hybrid linebacker/defensive end Micah Parsons:
"It's extremely hard. They do a good job of disguising. It's bad enough when he lines up in one place, but when he moves around, you've got to know where he is at all times. He's a game wrecker."