We’re through five of six games in the NFL playoffs’ wild-card round for the 2022 season, and on Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys will visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the final one (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN+). It’s Tom Brady vs. Dak Prescott, and the winner will advance to play the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round next weekend.
So what do you need to know for Dallas vs. Tampa Bay? Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the biggest keys to the NFC showdown and a bold prediction. Additionally, we provide a big stat to know, officiating insight and a betting nugget, while our Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a game projection. Seth Walder and Eric Moody also give us final-score picks. We cap it all off with Matt Bowen’s analysis of how each team can pull off the win in Tampa, Florida, on Monday night.
How to watch: ESPN, ABC, ESPN2, ESPN+
Read more: Brady’s journey from retirement to playoffs
Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET | Spread: DAL -2.5 (45.5)
What to watch for: The Bucs’ defense held the Cowboys to just 71 rushing yards in Week 1, and Dallas has been held under 100 yards rushing just four times this season. For Tampa Bay, getting defensive tackle Vita Vea back this week could go a long way in replicating that performance and making quarterback Dak Prescott one-dimensional. The Bucs are 6-2 this season when Vea and Akiem Hicks are on the field together. — Jenna Laine
Bold prediction: The Cowboys will beat the Buccaneers. How is that bold, predicting a 12-5 team to beat an 8-9 team? Well, the Cowboys are 0-7 vs. Tom Brady. They have lost to the Bucs to open the season each of the past two years. Oh, and the Cowboys have lost eight straight playoff games on the road. They have just 11 players on the 53-man roster who were alive the last time the Cowboys won a playoff game away from home (1992 NFC Championship Game at San Francisco). — Todd Archer
Stat to know: The Cowboys ranked second in both pass rush win rate (52.1%) and sack rate (8.6%), and they finished first in pressure percentage (39%). Meanwhile, the Buccaneers ranked 24th in pass block win rate this season (55.2%). Additionally, Brady was near the bottom of the league in multiple categories against pressure this season. He ranked 29th in QBR (6.7) and 31st in yards per attempt (3.3), and he threw the NFL’s third-most interceptions in those situations (six).
What to know for officiating: The Buccaneers are good at drawing flags from opposing defensive backfields. Their opponents committed the second-most fouls (21) for pass interference, illegal contact and/or defensive holding. The Cowboys’ secondary tied for the 12th-highest total of those fouls. But referee Craig Wrolstad’s regular-season crew was stingy overall, throwing the second-fewest flags per game (11.1) among the league’s 17 crews. — Kevin Seifert
Betting nugget: Tampa Bay was a league-worst 4-12-1 against the spread this season. It is the second-worst regular-season ATS mark of any playoff team in the Super Bowl era. But Brady is 7-3 ATS in his career as a postseason underdog with four straight outright wins. Read more.
Moody’s pick: Buccaneers 27, Cowboys 21
Walder’s pick: Cowboys 22, Buccaneers 11
FPI prediction: DAL, 67.5% (by an average of 5.2 points)
Matchup must-reads: Postseason offers Cowboys coach McCarthy chance to respond to critics … Where Prescott, Brady rank among playoff QBs … Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: McCarthy’s job not at stake … Prescott judged by Super Bowl-winning standard … Brady’s journey from retirement to playoffs
Bowen’s keys for the Cowboys to beat the Bucs
1. High-low the Bucs’ second-level defenders with CeeDee Lamb.
The Bucs played Cover 3 on 32.8% of opponent dropbacks this season, the fourth most in the NFL. It’s their staple coverage. The Cowboys can cause issues here with Lamb on interior high-low concepts to create conflict for the Bucs’ second-level defenders in three-deep zone.
Here, Dallas can stretch the Tampa Bay defense horizontally, giving Prescott a two-level read with Lamb as a prime target on crossers and overs. Force the linebackers to squat in their drops, with Lamb now working to open grass. Catch and go.
Tedy Bruschi: The Cowboys are better than the Bucs
Tedy Bruschi breaks down what Dak Prescott and the Cowboys need to do for a win vs. the Buccaneers.
2. Scheme Micah Parsons in one-on-one pass-rush matchups.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn does an excellent job with his fronts in terms of creating pass-rush matchups. We’ll see this Monday night with Parsons, who racked up 13.5 sacks while leading the league with 74 total pressures. Quinn has to scheme to occupy the guard to give Parsons a matchup against Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith, or align Parsons inside as a standup defensive tackle to go to work on the interior of the Tampa Bay offensive line, which is not a strength.
Don’t forget about the stunts that create open rush lanes for Parsons to use his top-tier short-area speed to get home. If you’re Dallas, you want to put Parsons in the most disruptive alignments possible to get Brady off platform on every dropback.
Bowen’s keys for the Bucs to beat the Cowboys
1. More power play-action concepts for Brady.
Brady led all quarterbacks with 154 passing attempts over the final four weeks of the season. Even with the heavy volume, though, Brady attempted only 25 play-action passes during that stretch. In fact, for the season, the Bucs ranked last in the NFL in percentage of plays using a play-fake (15.1%).
I would like to see offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich get back to the play-action concepts, especially with a guard pulling to influence linebackers. This will open those windows for Brady to target star wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at the second level, plus it creates a tight end element in the Bucs’ pass game with Cade Otton running the quick seams and benders. And looking at this Dallas pass rush, play-action is an answer with Brady driving that ball once he hits the top of his drop.
2. Use late secondary rotation against Prescott.
Prescott threw at least one interception in each of his final seven regular-season games. That’s not good enough, and the tape tells us he isn’t seeing the field cleanly. This is an opportunity for the Bucs to make him work post-snap with late rotation from single-high and split-safety shells.
We know Tampa Bay is a zone-heavy defense — 65% of its coverage snaps in the regular season — and it will bring pressure. Send five rushers, with zone principles in the back end. Let’s see if the Bucs can disguise those blitz looks and spin the secondary (at the snap) to get to Cover 3 and quarters while putting their second- and third-level defenders in a position to steal a couple from Prescott.