TAMPA — The running game disappeared back in September. The deep pass soon followed.
Somewhere in October, the takeaways vanished on defense. And then the sacks started to dry up, too.
By the time the Bucs finished the 17-game regular season with a losing record on Sunday, Tampa Bay fans were left clinging to the one commodity that has survived against all odds:
The hope that next week will somehow be better.
Admit it, you’ve been thinking that way for months now. You look at Tom Brady and still see confetti falling on his perfect hair. You look at Devin White and Lavonte David and recall a defense that was once among the best in the league. You keep expecting someone to flip the magic switch just before kickoff.
You are an optimist in a league where 31 of 32 teams come up short every year.
Common sense says the Bucs have no business beating the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas has a better record, better stats, and the confidence of oddsmakers in Las Vegas.
And yet … here are 10 reasons why Tampa Bay should beat Dallas on Monday night.
1. Run for your life
The average NFL team rushed for 121 yards per game this season. The Cowboys defense gave up more than that in just about half of their games. More importantly, they went 3-5 in those games. Tampa Bay’s second-best day on the ground in 2022 was the season opener against Dallas when the Bucs gained 152 yards.
2. Tell your bookie to stuff it
The Cowboys are three-point favorites. Makes sense, right? A 12-5 team is almost always going to be more attractive than an 8-9 team no matter what the extenuating circumstances are. But odds and point spreads are merely opinions. They may be heavily researched and calculated opinions, but they are opinions, nonetheless. Since the 2000 season, the Bucs are 3-4 when they’re a favorite in the postseason. They are 5-1, with five consecutive wins, when they’re the underdog. The moral of the story? Don’t sweat the odds.
3. Wait, he did what?
With a cap hit of $49,130,000, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott is one of the most expensive players in the league. And when he signed his four-year deal in 2021, it made total sense. But, while leading the Cowboys to an average of 32.4 points a game since returning in October from a thumb injury, Prescott has also thrown a league-high 14 interceptions in 11 games. His interception rate of 3.8 percent is more than double his career average coming into the season.
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4. C’mon, folks, it’s baby steps
There is no alternate universe where the Bucs offense has looked explosive, or even efficient, this season. But Tampa Bay has been slightly better since Rachaad White started getting more playing time in mid-November. The Bucs have gone from a humiliating 60.7 yards per game on the ground to a less embarrassing 95.3 yards per game. Time of possession increased dramatically, and scoring went up slightly.
5. Pick your poison
When they played in the season opener, the Cowboys did not have All Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs shadowing Mike Evans. (Two passes thrown his way against Diggs resulted in a 19-yard completion and a 5-yard touchdown.) Evans saw most of his action on the other side of the field with Hillsborough High’s Anthony Brown covering him. Since then, Brown has been lost for the season with an Achilles injury. Slot corner Jourdan Lewis is also on injured reserve. That means Dallas has a couple of young players in the secondary, and may need to rethink how to handle Evans. There’s not a quarterback in the NFL who can spot mismatches better than Tom Brady.
6. Fire them cannons!
The Cowboys have a far better resume when it comes to 2022 results. Dallas has beaten five teams that are in the playoffs, while the Bucs are 2-4 against postseason-bound teams. The one caveat? The Cowboys have the widest discrepancy between home/road performance of any playoff team. Dallas is 8-1 at home but 4-4 away from home. Not that it matters, but Dallas has gone 30 years without a playoff victory on the road.
7. A tortoise approach to football
The 19-3 victory against Dallas in the season opener was Tampa Bay’s most lopsided win of the season. That won’t happen again. The formula for the Bucs has been obvious since then: avoid mistakes, keep the score close, count on winning in the fourth quarter. And they have gotten pretty good at that. Their last six wins have all been by six points or fewer.
8. Pressure, much?
The Cowboys have the best record in the NFC the past two seasons at 24-10, yet owner Jerry Jones was asked to address the job status of head coach Mike McCarthy on a radio show this week. That’s life on America’s Team. Dallas has gone 4-11 in the postseason since winning its last Super Bowl in 1995. Another first-round exit would make McCarthy’s underpants feel a little snugger.
9. Not so fearsome these days
Through 12 weeks, the Dallas pass rush was leading the NFL in sacks with an average of four per game. In the final five games, the Cowboys averaged 1.2 per game. Was this because All-Pro Micah Parsons was banged up? Was it because the Cowboys toned down the pass rush in order to fix the leaky run defense? Whatever the reason, the pass rush has not been as intimidating in the past month.
10. Tom Brady
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