The Tampa Bay Buccaneers conquered the NFC South crown for the second-consecutive year but made a quick exit in the playoffs following a discouraging 31-14 loss to the visiting Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card Round on Monday night at Raymond James Stadium. The Cowboys snapped Tom Brady's undefeated (7-0) reign of terror over the franchise, imposing their will at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football.
"They executed both sides of the ball," Head Coach Todd Bowles said following the matchup. "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. They deserve all the credit."
Both clubs got off to a slow start offensively, with four straight three-and-outs to begin the meeting. However, Dak Prescott and his supporting cast found their rhythm, meanwhile, the Buccaneers never achieved consistency. Dallas dominated in the red area and completed seven of 13 third-down conversion attempts, along with two fourth-down tries. The Bucs were one-of-three in the red zone, whereas the Cowboys scored four touchdowns in four red zone trips. Tampa Bay failed to come away with a touchdown on two first-and-goal situations, including an end-zone interception by safety Jayron Kearse in the first quarter. The turnover halted the Bucs' promising 70-yard drive, which would have increased their lead by one, 7-6, after Cowboys' kicker Brett Maher missed the extra point. Following two straight punts (-2 yards, five yards) to begin the game, the Bucs had the chance to take command but instead, handed momentum to the Cowboys.
The Bucs had struggled to find synergy on the offensive side of the ball In 2022 – 12 fewer points per game than last year - and Monday's Wild Card showcase became a microcosm of the club's tumultuous year. Against Dallas, the question mark became, could Tampa Bay relieve Tom Brady of pressure by neutralizing the Cowboys' pass rush with an effective run game? The answer became a "no" as No. 12 passed 66 times (35 completions) – the most in any game of his storied career.
"I think anytime you are the worst in the league it's a combination of everything," Bowles said. "There is no one thing that you can point to, to say we weren't good in the running game. We just weren't good in the running game. We will look at the tape, we will re-evaluate everything and we will make those decisions going forward of why we had such a bad thing. We try to do that weekly, but we will do that yearly as a staff and we will go from there."
After falling behind, the Bucs were not able to dictate the flow of the game and Dan Quinn capitalized by unleashing pass rushers, swarming Brady in the pocket. Brady connected on touchdowns to Julio Jones and Cameron Brate, but the team's deficit was too much to overcome after falling behind the chains. Over the course of the night, the Buccaneers had no answers for Micah Parsons, the Cowboys' prized hybrid edge/linebacker, who concluded the game with eight pressures, six hurries, three run stops, two pass deflections, one quarterback hurry, one sack and no recorded missed tackles.
The Cowboys took a domineering 18-0 lead in the first half on three long touchdown drives, covering 80, 80 and 91 yards, respectively. One of the only inefficiencies to their script was kicker Brett Maher, who missed all three extra points – the same number he had missed in the entire 2022-23 season. Maher went on to miss a fourth, becoming the only player in NFL history to miss that many in a single game. After the Bucs' defense forced two back-to-back three-and-outs, the Cowboys became revitalized with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz. The Bucs' answered with a methodical drive, but on first-and-goal, Brady threw a pass in the end zone that was intercepted by Jayron Kearse. Dallas capitalized off the gift with an 80-yard drive, capped off by an untouched Prescott on a naked bootleg for the touchdown. Before halftime, Prescott extended the lead, hitting Schultz again for an 11-yard score. Dallas outgained the Bucs 246-120 in the first half and never loosened their hold on the home team. Missed assignments and blown coverages led to the defense's sputtering in prime time, as the Cowboys' multiple touchdowns featured playmakers who were trotting wide-open into the endzone.
"If you do it nine out of 10 times right, it's not a coaching thing or a playing thing – that means you know what you're doing but you just busted that play," Bowles stated on the defensive breakdowns. "It's just football. A guy makes a play on you, and you bust the play, or you just miss something – it has nothing to do with coaching or studying, that's just in the moment of the game you messed up that play. You've got to be more disciplined than that."
On the defensive side of the ball, Bucs' inside linebacker Lavonte David spearheaded the effort with 14 tackles, including one for a loss and nose tackle Vita Vea recorded the team's lone sack of Prescott on the Cowboys' second offensive possession. He pushed the pocket and burst through the A-gap, dropping No. 4 for a loss of eight, setting up fourth-and-15 and the Cowboys' ensuing punt.
Status of Russell Gage Jr.
The dispiriting game for the Bucs took a turn with three minutes left in regulation. Receiver Russell Gage suffered an injury and had to be taken off the field via a stretcher board and a cart. Fellow teammates came to kneel around Gage in support as he exited the Wild Card matchup. Bowles stated that the diagnosis was a concussion and after further evaluation at a local hospital, "his neck is fine." Gage has movement in all his extremities and he released a statement of gratitude on Twitter for the prayers and well wishes: "I appreciate all of the texts, calls, thoughts and prayers you all have expressed towards my family and I. I just wanted to let you all know that I'm doing great and in great spirits! Thank you."