Game preview: Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Oct 2, 2022; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) runs after the ball in the second quarter against the Washington Commanders at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Game preview: Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers


No. 5 Dallas Cowboys (12-5) at No. 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9)

Game time: Monday, 7:15 p.m. CST

TV/radio: ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes / SiriusXM CH. 226, 105.3 The Fan, KVMK 107.5 La Grande (Spanish)

What’s at stake: Everything is on the line Monday night when the Cowboys and Buccaneers kickoff in the final game of Super Wild Card Weekend. A win and the Cowboys will have their first playoff victory since the 2018 season, and their first road playoff victory in just over 30 years. A loss and the Cowboys make a first-round exit for the second straight season under Mike McCarthy. The Cowboys’ third-year head coach might suddenly be on the hot seat, despite back-to-back 12-win seasons.

When the Cowboys have the ball: When the Cowboys’ offense had success this season, they used the run to set up the passing game. The effectiveness of the run game has dipped over the last quarter of the season, and the Cowboys’ offense has struggled as a result. The Cowboys are going to have to find a way to successfully run the ball, which means hitting the season averages for both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard against a Buccaneers run defense that is middle of the pack in the NFL this season against the run – giving up 120.7 yards per game. The Cowboys managed just 71 yards on the ground in the first meeting, and the Bucs are just a nicked-up Vita Vea away from being completely healthy across the defensive front. When Dallas does throw, quarterback Dak Prescott will have to find a way to take care of the football after throwing interceptions in 10 of 12 games started, including seven straight to end the season.

When the Buccaneers have the ball: The Cowboys’ defense will get an up-close view of the most decorated quarterback in postseason history when they take on Tom Brady and the Buccaneers on Monday night. Coming off one the better seasons of his career, the 45-year-old threw for 4,694 yards (6th most in his 23 seasons) and 25 touchdowns. Brady is 35-12 in the postseason, where he averages 277.6 yards passing and just under two touchdowns per game. The Cowboys will have to lean on a pass rush that accumulated the most sacks in the NFL for the second straight season but has seen its production dip over the last five games. With just six sacks since Dec. 11, including being shutout against Philadelphia and Houston, the Cowboys’ defense – led by sack leaders Micah Parsons and Dorance Armstrong, will need to interrupt Brady and the Bucs’ passing game to be successful on Monday night. With Jonathan Hankins back to help shore up the run defense, the Cowboys will try to keep Leonard Fournette bottled up, which they were unable to do in the season opener. The Cowboys allowed Fournette 127 yards in Week 1, just one of three backs to crack the 100-yard mark against the Cowboys this season.

Key Cowboys to watch:

LB Leighton Vander Esch – The Cowboys welcome middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch back to the lineup after he missed the last two-plus games with a shoulder stinger. When Vander Esch went down with the injury early against Philadelphia three games ago, he was leading the Cowboys in tackles with 90. Without him, the Cowboys struggled to slow down their opponents, allowing 73 points over that stretch. With LVE back, it allows the Cowboys to move linebacker Anthony Barr back to his more effective position on the weak side.

C Tyler Biadasz – The Cowboys will have the anchor of their offensive line back this week, with center Tyler Biadasz back in the lineup after missing the last five-plus quarters of football with a high-ankle sprain. His absence against Washington in the regular season finale was noticeable, as the Cowboys failed to get anything going offensively. Biadasz was a full-go in the final practice of the week, so his return allows the Cowboys to move Connor McGovern back to left guard and Tyler Smith back out to left tackle, their most successful configuration on the left side this season. Biadasz, who has played 1,066 snaps this season, has been penalized just five times and has not given up a sack.

DE Dorance Armstrong – The Cowboys need a big day from their defensive line if they are going to earn a road win over the Buccaneers, and that starts with the play of defensive end Dorance Armstrong. Armstrong has come on this season in the two most important areas for a defensive lineman – rushing the quarterback and stopping the run. The Cowboys will need both from Armstrong, who is second on the team in sacks with 8½ this season, while recording 33 tackles. Playing opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, Armstrong will be counted on to set the edge of the right defensive front on running plays, keeping the Tampa Bay ground attack from getting outside on the edge when running to his side.

TE Dalton Schultz – There is no team in the NFL that loves to use the tight end more than Dallas, and Dalton Schultz, who has played 759 snaps this season, is the Cowboys’ top target at the position. Already fifth on the all-time career yardage list for a Cowboys tight end with 2,122 yards, Schultz has been a favorite of Cowboys quarterbacks for the better part of three seasons. Despite missing two games this season with injury, Schultz’s 577 yards receiving is still good enough for 10th best among TEs this season. In the run game, Schultz is counted on to help block the edge of the defensive front and will be key in whether the Cowboys’ ground game can find success on Monday night.

The bottom line: The Cowboys won 12 games in the regular season just for the chance to play football in the middle of January, now they must figure out how to take advantage of that opportunity. The Cowboys are staring history – no road playoff wins since 1993, and quarterback Tom Brady, whom the Cowboys have never beaten, right in the face and something must give if Dallas is to advance to the Divisional round next week. The Cowboys, and especially quarterback Dak Prescott, need to play their best game of the season, or the franchise will head into its 27th straight offseason without appearing in an NFC Championship game, much less a Super Bowl.

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