Dak Prescott, Cowboys silence critics in dominant playoff win

It was a night of doubt, or more specifically, of erasing it. With the memories of last year’s playoff failure still lingering and an embarrassing regular season finish still fresh in their minds, the Dallas Cowboys had no shortage of doubts heading into this, the slow night of this wildcard weekend

It seems like a silly sentence to write after a 31-14 drubbing of Tampa Bay that was even more lopsided than the score suggests. And as they look toward the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 2018, that should be considered a confidence booster, something that could come in handy in a big tilt against the San Francisco 49ers.

“We got blown out last year. We know what’s ahead of us,” Dak Prescott said after the game.

The hype for a Cowboys-Niners rematch will be unreal and debated in every way imaginable.

Meanwhile, Prescott deserves top billing in any retelling of this game. No member of this Cowboys organization has drawn more criticism than the seventh-year quarterback, who led the league in interceptions this season despite missing five games with injury. Early on, Monday looked like it might be another forgettable chapter, as Prescott’s first three passes fell incomplete and he was sacked, all within his first six snaps. As a result, it would be a rarity for Prescott or his passes to hit the turf from that point forward.

Midway through that game, when the outcome was still in doubt, Prescott dissected the Buccaneer defense going 15-of-17 for 203 yards and two touchdowns. When that didn’t work, he ran the ball seven times for another 24 and his fourth career postseason touchdown.

“We settled in. We lost a couple of hours, but we settled in, we got in a groove,” Prescott said. Perhaps most importantly, he went his first shutout game in two months, snapping a seven-game hitting streak. This has been a sticking point that has followed him all season, raising the stakes in an already massive game. Asked about how to fight this outside perception, he was blunt.

“I didn’t listen. I just didn’t listen to anybody else’s opinions, anybody else’s thoughts,” he said. “I made sure I was aware of what I put my mind to. I have a great supporting cast and my team, people who believe in me. That’s all that really matters to me.”

All of this is very important to Prescott in the narrative sense. It gives him his second career playoff win, not to mention the franchise’s first playoff win since the 1992 season. That it comes against Tom Brady, ruining the legend’s perfect career record against Dallas, makes it even sweeter.

Of course, these are all outside talking points. Far more important to the postseason picture are the other performances we saw at Raymond James Stadium, as Prescott wasn’t the only one who eased some concerns. Crucial to his own performance was a clinic from Dallas’ offensive line, which has struggled with injuries over the past month. The injury bug didn’t even abate in this one, as Jason Peters exited his second start of the season with a hip injury.

Do not you worry. Enter Connor McGovern, who started the night at fullback, as the Cowboys adjusted on the fly by sticking him at left guard and kicking Tyler Smith from left guard to left tackle. None of that even includes the ongoing wrinkle of moving primary left tackle Tyron Smith to the right side, where he turned in his best performance of his injury-shortened season.

The results have not been good for much of the last month; they were great on monday. Outside of the first sack, Prescott was barely touched all night. Even more encouraging, Dallas produced its most productive rushing performance since Dec. 18.

If all that wasn’t enough, it would be unfair to omit a dominant performance from a defense that had lost much of its trademark over the last six weeks. The Cowboys limped into this game having recorded just six sacks in their last five games, a far cry from their near-historic pace earlier in the year. And while they only recorded two sacks of Brady, the Cowboys held him to an ineffective performance for much of the night. The Buccaneers went into the half scoreless and had an abysmal 120 yards of offense, with a crucial miscue when Brady threw an easy interception to Jayron Kearse in the back of the end zone.

“It’s great to end streaks and start new traditions around here,” Micah Parsons joked.

All those good things said, it wouldn’t be the Cowboys without something to worry about. And for every doubt that Dak and his teammates erased, there’s now the question of the Cowboys’ kicking situation. Steady for much of this season, Brett Maher missed four consecutive extra points in this outing, a total disaster that was only slightly reduced by a mark on his final attempt. This will lead to a lot of hand wringing and speculation about what to do next.

These are Tuesday problems. On a Monday night under the brightest lights, there were plenty of doubts about these Dallas Cowboys. From Dak Prescott to the roster, they answered them one by one.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in the production of “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.

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