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NFL Wild Card Takeaways: Prescott erases doubts, Cowboys shut down Brady’s Buccaneers

After back-to-back days of frenzied finishes on the football field, the stage was set for a comeback on Monday night. 

Following Jacksonville’s surge back from 27-0 Saturday against the Chargers, and Miami’s full-court press in Buffalo a day later, it was only natural to think that once Dallas upped the score to 24-0 in the third quarter on the third day of a particularly wild Super Wild Card Weekend, we might be in for the best comeback of all in Tampa Bay.

It’s Tom Brady, after all, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the course of his career, it’s that you can never count out the GOAT.

And yet, in Monday night’s Wild Card matchup against Dallas, with a Divisional Round date in San Francisco on the line, the comeback never came. 

Despite a slow start offensively, Dallas was dominant. Any questions about Dak Prescott’s ability to propel the Cowboys to their first playoff road win were quickly erased, while Dallas’ defence was stifling from kickoff until the final down of the Cowboys’ impressive 31-14 victory. 

The only real glimmer of hope for the home team came at the end of the third quarter when Brady connected with Julio Jones on a 30-yard touchdown pass to finally get the Buccaneers on the board. If that created any spark at all, though, it was very quickly extinguished by a failed two-point conversion and fifth touchdown for Dallas soon after on a big-time busted coverage that saw CeeDee Lamb as wide open as you can get. A second touchdown pass for Brady – an eight-yard toss to Cameron Brate with just over two minutes left in the game – was followed by a successful onside kick recovery and a smattering of what ifs and maybes… 

But a Monday night miracle was not to be. Not for these Buccaneers, a team that’s looked every part of its sub-.500 record all season, a team that never really roused much offensive success despite the presence of TB12 under center. And a team that now faces plenty of question marks after its season was cut short. 

The Cowboys, meanwhile, answered a lot of questions with Monday’s decisive victory – their most convincing win of the year, and their first road playoff W since Jan. 17, 1993, when they topped the 49ers en route to winning Super Bowl XXVII. 

It’s only fitting that Monday’s performance earns them a trip back to the Bay Area to take on the NFC’s second-seed in the 49ers. 

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Dak’s back, and he put on his best showing yet

Despite registering four more regular season wins than their 8-9 Wild Card Weekend hosts, the 12-5 Cowboys were no sure thing heading into this matchup. The numbers didn’t exactly favour Dallas, whose 2022 campaign began with a nightmarish outing at home against the Buccaneers – a 19-3 loss that saw Prescott exit with a thumb injury. Brady’s perfect record (he was 7-0 against Dallas all-time heading into Monday’s matchup) as well as Dallas’ 0-8 post-season road record since ’93 only added to the doubts. 

And then there were Prescott’s performances of late. The 29-year-old entered Monday’s contest riding a streak of seven straight games with at least one interception, a stretch in which he threw 11 picks. Despite starting just 12 games this season, he led the league in INTs with 15. 

Prescott snapped that streak when it mattered most on Monday, and put together a final stat line that wasn’t just good enough for the win – it was historically good. 

The QB completed 25 of his 33 pass attempts for 305 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions, registering a 75.8 completion percentage while also running in another score of his own. Prescott, who now has a playoff record of 2-2, also wrote his name into Dallas’ record books as the first QB in team history to tally five touchdowns in a single playoff game. 

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Dan Quinn’s defence as dominant as it gets, blanks Brady in first half

These days, it feels like Brady is marking a new milestone every time he hits the field. That was the case Monday night, though you won’t find TB12 celebrating these ones. Brady was held scoreless in the first half against the Cowboys, marking the first time he’s been shut out in the first half of a playoff game since his very first post-season appearance way back in January 2002 – the Divisional Round matchup against the Oakland Raiders also known as the “Tuck Rule Game.”

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Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse certainly did his part to earn the shutout, picking off Brady in the red zone and delivering another milestone moment the GOAT would like to soon forget:

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Brady managed just 96 passing yards in the first half, completing 11 of his 23 attempts.

While Brady did manage to finally get the Buccaneers on the board at the end of the third quarter, the Cowboys’ onslaught never eased up, their coverage relentless. Brady completed 35 of his 66 passes for 351 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and could never get into a rhythm with his weapons – a problem that’s persisted all season, despite Brady putting up really strong passing numbers in 2022.  

Quinn’s defence, which has been heralded all season as one of the league’s top units, has earned him plenty of notice. The former Atlanta Falcons head coach – who, yes, was coaching when Brady’s Patriots stormed back from 28-3 in Super Bowl LI – has helmed Dallas’ D the past few seasons and is already considered one of this off-season’s most notable candidates for one of the five head coaching jobs currently open. 

Maher misses the mark… again, and again, and again (…and again)

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Monday was a great night to be a Cowboy… and a terrible night to be their kicker. 

In fact, Cowboys place-kicker Brett Maher presented the lone flaw in what was an otherwise outstanding game from all angles. Maher, who’s been a reliable kicker all season, started Monday’s game with three missed extra-point attempts in the first half, his first two sailing wide right and his third too far to the left. He then opened the second half with another miss – his fourth of the game! – after Dallas’ fourth touchdown. Including the missed extra point on the Cowboys’ lone touchdown of their regular-season finale against Washington, Maher had missed five consecutive extra point attempts. After missing just three extra-point attempts all season, he set a new league record for most misses in a single playoff game. 

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The fifth attempt, as it turned out, was the charm on Monday night. Maher kicked it through the uprights for what was maybe… just maybe… the biggest win of the night. 

What’s next for Tom Brady?

This season, his 22nd, brought Brady his 14th straight playoff berth and 20th overall, despite finishing the year with a sub-.500 record for the first time in his career. In 48 post-season games (he’s missed the dance just twice in his career) Brady has recorded more playoff wins (35) than any other NFLer has appearances. With his record now 35-13, his place in NFL lore long-ago solidified, the question now becomes: What’s next?

Brady is slated to be a free agent, and after retiring and un-retiring last off-season has said that once he decides his fate this year, his decision will be final. He’ll take his time, as he should. 

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If this is the end for Brady, it won’t be the storybook ending many of us wanted to write. But when your football life spans as many chapters as Brady’s has, and includes as many victories and records and rings and game-changing moments as his, he’ll always go out on top.

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