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Inconsistent from start to finish, the Bucs saved their worst performance of an up-and-down season for the least opportune occasion, resulting in a premature exit from the playoffs.
Badly outplayed on both sides of the ball, Tampa Bay fell to Dallas 31-14 in an NFC wild-card game Monday at Raymond James Stadium.
Dak Prescott threw for four touchdowns and ran for another as the Cowboys raced to an 18-point halftime lead and never looked back despite kicker Brett Maher missing four of his five extra-point kicks.
While the Cowboys advance to play the 49ers next weekend in San Francisco in the division round, the Bucs now face an uncertain offseason. Quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Lavonte David, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and wide receiver Julio Jones are among the players set to become free agents.
Prescott threw touchdown passes of 22 and 11 yards to tight end Dalton Schultz, 2 to Michael Gallup and 18 to CeeDee Lamb. He also ran 1 yard for a touchdown on a fourth-down play.
The Bucs trailed 24-0 before Tom Brady finally put them on the board with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jones on the final play of the third quarter.
Brady later added an 8-yard scoring pass to tight end Cameron Brate with 2:04 to play. His two-point conversion pass to Mike Evans trimmed Tampa Bay’s deficit to 31-14.
Giovani Bernard then recovered an onside kick for the Bucs as Cowboys receiver Noah Brown was unable to secure Jake Camarda’s kick.
Brady had Evans open deep down the right sideline on the next play but just overthrew him. Tampa Bay got as far as the Dallas 35 before Brady’s pass over the middle for Jones on fourth and 6 was incomplete.
Prescott completed 25 of 33 passes for 305 yards and the four touchdowns. Schultz was his favorite target, with seven receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
Brady was 35 of 66 for 351 yards and two touchdowns in what could be his final game as a Buc. He was sacked twice and threw an interception in the end zone.
A sober stadium became downright somber when Tampa Bay wide receiver Russell Gage was unable to get up off the field after being hit on an incomplete pass with just under three minutes remaining. After a long delay, Gage was placed on a backboard and carted off the field.
Here’s how it happened:
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Too little, too late
Tom Brady and Mike Evans finally got in sync during a mid-fourth quarter drive, connecting twice for 33 yards, including a spinning catch along the right sideline for 20 yards to the Cowboys 37.
A 15-yard catch-and-run by tight end Cade Otton and 6-yard completion to Julio Jones quickly moved the ball to the 16.
Brady then went back to Otton over the middle for 14 yards and a first down at the 2. After Brady twice threw incomplete for Jones in the end zone, he was sacked by Johnathan Hankins for a loss of 9.
The possession ultimately resulted in a turnover on downs, however, when Chauncey Gholston pressured Brady into an incompletion on fourth and goal from the 11.
Just as the Bucs put themselves into position for a potential comeback, the Cowboys answered Tampa Bay’s touchdown with one of their own.
After a 35-yard kickoff return by KaVontae Turpin, Dallas drove 66 yards in nine plays, extending their lead to 31-6 on Dak Prescott’s fourth touchdown pass of the game, an 18-yarder to a wide-open CeeDee Lamb on fourth and 4.
The Cowboys ran kicker Brett Maher on to the field for an apparent field-goal attempt before calling him back to the sideline and deciding to go for the first down instead.
Maher, who missed his first four extra-point attempts, made good on his fifth, giving Dallas a 25-point advantage with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Digging their way out
Trailing by 24 points near the end of the third quarter, the Bucs were pinned deep in their own end after Kelvin Joseph downed a 42-yard punt by Bryan Anger at the 5-yard line.
But they dug their way out, driving 95 yards in 10 plays to get on the scoreboard for the first time in the game.
After a 3-yard run by Rachaad White, Tom Brady’s pass for White was batted down by Micah Parsons. Brady connected with White on the next play, resulting in an 11-yard gain and first down at the 19.
A Brady dart over the middle to Chris Godwin was good for 15 yards and another first down at the 34. Russell Gage caught a pass thrown behind him and spun his way to a 7-yard gain. Julio Jones then made a contested catch for a first down at the Tampa Bay 49.
After a short pass to Russell Gage picked up 3 yards, Israel Mukuamu broke up a pass over the middle for Godwin. No matter. Brady found Mike Evans on a shallow cross for 18 yards and a first down to the Dallas 30 on the next play.
Then, showing the pluck that has allowed him to bring the Bucs back from deficits repeatedly this season, Brady threw a perfectly placed ball deep down the left sideline to Julio Jones, who made a diving catch for a 30-yard touchdown that cut Tampa Bay’s deficit to 24-6 at the end of the third quarter.
Brady’s two-point pass attempt was incomplete.
Could have been worse
The Bucs dodged a bullet when an apparent Chris Godwin fumble that Cowboys safety Malik Hooker returned deep into Tampa Bay territory midway through the third quarter was overturned following a replay review.
Jayron Kearse nearly intercepted a Tom Brady pass near midfield a couple of plays later before Brady threw incomplete for Mike Evans over the middle on third and 10, resulting in a Bucs punt.
The Cowboys picked up where they left off in the first half at the start of the second, driving 86 yards in eight plays to take a 24-point lead.
Dak Prescott completions of 26 yards to tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb helped Dallas quickly move the ball to the Tampa Bay 28-yard line.
After defensive lineman William Gholston was called for defensive holding, Tony Pollard ran for 18 yards around right end to the 4. An Ezekiel Elliott run up the middle picked up 2 more yards to the 2.
Prescott’s pass just beyond the outstretched arms of cornerback Carlton Davis found Michael Gallup in the back of the end zone, extending the Cowboys’ lead to 24-0.
Brett Maher, of course, missed the extra point, his fourth of the game.
More of the same
The Bucs started the second half the way they did the first, going three-and-out their first time with the ball.
Starting at their 27-yard line, Tom Brady connected with Rachaad White for 6 yards before throwing behind an open Russell Gage, bringing up third and 6.
Brady’s throw over the middle for Chris Godwin would have picked up the first down, but Cowboys safety Israel Mukuamu broke up the pass, forcing a Bucs punt.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery
Dak Prescott did his best Tom Brady impression late in the first half, driving the Cowboys 91 yards for a touchdown in the final minutes to move out to a three-score lead.
Dallas went ahead 18-0 on Prescott’s second touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz, this time from 11 yards out, with 27 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Kicker Brett Maher missed his third extra-point kick of the game.
Prescott was 7-of-9 on the drive, including completions of 20 yards to Schultz and CeeDee Lamb.
He also ran 11 yards for a first down on third and 6 from the Dallas 44.
The Cowboys took advantage of the first turnover of the game, driving 80 yards in 15 plays after a Tom Brady interception to take a 12-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
The big play was a 34-yard catch-and-run by tight end Jake Ferguson to the Bucs 6 following a short pass from Dak Prescott.
Tight end Dalton Schultz was penalized for holding on the next play, pushing Dallas back to the 14. Tony Pollard got most of the yards back on a 7-yard around right end before Prescott picked up 5 yards on a run over the right side, setting up third and goal from the 1.
Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed by Logan Hall on a run over the left side. But the Cowboys went for it on fourth down, and Prescott went untouched into the end zone on a bootleg around left end after faking a handoff to Elliott.
Brett Maher missed his second extra-point kick of the game, leaving Dallas ahead 12-0 with 8:38 remaining in the second quarter.
The Bucs’ offense seemed to find their footing on their third possession, driving 70 yards in 12 plays to the Cowboys 16 before coming away with no points.
Running back Rachaad White got things started, taking a short Tom Brady pass 11 yards to the Tampa Bay 39 on third and 7 to pick up their first, first down.
Two plays after that, Brady found Chris Godwin at the 50 for 11 yards and another first down.
White was back at it a play later, gaining 12 yards up the middle to the Cowboys 38. After a 4-yard run by Leonard Fournette and an incomplete pass intended for tight end Ko Kieft, Tampa Bay faced third and 6.
A Brady pass over the middle to Mike Evans gained 12 yards to the 22. Brady threw incomplete for tight ed Cameron Brate in the end zone before a 6-yard pass to Chris Godwin made it third and 4 from the 16.
Under pressure, Brady scrambled to his right and pushed a pass to Godwin on the right sideline. The receiver took the ball 11 yards to the 5 as the first quarter came to a close.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, Brady threw his first red-zone interception with Tampa Bay two plays later, picked off by safety Jayron Kearse in the end zone to give the Cowboys possession at their 20-yard line.
Fistful of firsts
The Cowboys picked up the first, first down of the game on Dak Prescott’s first completion, a 15-yard pass to Michael Gallup down the right sideline to the Dallas 40-yard line, at the start of their third possession.
The Cowboys got their second first down two plays later, when Bucs defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was penalized for roughing Prescott, resulting in a 15-yard penalty to the Bucs 40.
One play after that, Tony Pollard picked up 18 yards and another first down on a run around left end to the 22.
After Pollard was stopped for no gain, tight end Dalton Schultz produced the first points of the game on a 22-yard reception from Prescott down the middle of the field.
Brett Maher’s extra-point kick was no good, and the Cowboys settled for a 6-0 lead with 6:28 remaining in the first quarter.
Can’t take advantage
The Bucs got good field position their second time with the ball, as a Deven Thompkins’ 10-yard punt return set them up at their 41-yard line.
But a short pass to Mike Evans and a Leonard Fournette run netted just 5 yards, and Tom Brady’s pass for Russell Gage on an underneath drag route on third and 5 was broken up by safety Jayron Kearse.
One step forward ...
Cowboys running back Tony Pollard made the first positive play of the night with a 5-yard run around right end on Dallas’ second possession.
But any momentum the Cowboys got from the play was short-lived, as Vita Vea sacked Dak Prescott for an 8-yard loss on the following snap, causing a second straight Dallas punt.
The Bucs were equally unsuccessful on their opening possession, netting minus-3 yards on their first three plays.
Micah Parsons dropped Rachaad White for a 3-yard loss on Tampa Bay’s opening play from scrimmage. After Brady threw high for Russell Gage over the middle, the Bucs faced third and 13.
Brady’s pass for Mike Evans was incomplete. Donovan Smith was called for holding on the play, but the Cowboys declined the penalty, resulting in a Jake Camarda punt.
The Bucs forced the Cowboys to go three-and-out on their opening possession.
After Cee Dee Lamb dropped Dak Prescott’s pass on the first play from scrimmage, the quarterback’s second throw to the wide receiver was off target. T.Y. Hilton then was unable to pull in Prescott’s pass over the middle on third and 10, forcing Dallas to punt.
Timing is everything
As they open the postseason, the Bucs are as healthy as they have been all season, even welcoming back Ryan Jensen Monday after the veteran center had been out since the start of training camp with a knee injury.
The offense is coming off a confidence-building performance in the first half of the regular-season finale in Atlanta.
And in tonight’s wild-card game against a Cowboys team that is favored while facing outsized expectations from a fan base desperate for postseason success after just three playoff wins over the past 25 seasons, the Bucs will be “playing with house money,” as ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith said earlier this week.
Dallas lost to Tampa Bay by 16 points in Week 1 and comes off its most dismal performance of the season in a 20-point setback to NFC-worst Washington just a week ago despite playing its starters for most of the game.
Think Brady, who has never lost to the Cowboys, and the Bucs are feeling good about their chances?
The ignominy of an 8-9 regular season is long forgotten as they now are one of just nine teams remaining in contention for the Lombardi Trophy. By contrast, the Vikings, seeded third in the NFC after a 13-4 regular season, are watching from home following a wild-card loss to the Giants on Sunday.
Three wins will put the Bucs into the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. Four would give them the third NFL championship in franchise history and quarterback Tom Brady his eighth.
But even more than their chances, the Bucs are feeling good about themselves.
Wide receiver Chris Godwin appears to be completely recovered from the torn knee ligaments sustained during a December 2021 game against the Saints. Brady and receiver Mike Evans seemed to regain their chemistry during the NFC South-clinching victory over the Panthers. Rookie Rachaad White has given Tampa Bay another weapon out of the backfield to join Leonard Fournette.
Cade Otton might not be Rob Gronkowski, but the tight end has developed into a viable threat down the middle of the field and near the goal line in his first season. The offensive line, hampered by retirement, injury and inexperience, continues to be the biggest concern, but Jensen’s return should give the unit some much-needed stability in the middle.
Akiem Hicks joined nose tackle Vita Vea to strengthen the defensive front. Inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White are back to making plays from sideline to sideline. Anthony Nelson and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka have helped to make up for the loss of Shaquil Barrett on the outside. And a secondary unit that has been one of the hardest-hit by injury (yet shown surprising depth) should be intact for one of the few times this season.
Outside of a couple of occasions when it was unable to get late-game stops, Todd Bowles’ defense has played well and kept the Bucs’ hopes alive when they have fallen behind this season. And with Brady under center, they have shown that they’re never truly out of a game.
Injuries may recur, and the inconsistency that plagued Tampa Bay throughout a regular season in which it failed to win more than two games in a row may yet return.
But is there a team peaking at a better time than the Bucs are right now?
You’d have a hard time convincing them otherwise.
Bucs activate center Ryan Jensen
The return of Ryan Jensen, atop the postseason wish list of most Bucs fans, is one transaction closer to reality.
The 2021 Pro Bowl center has been elevated from injured reserve to the active roster and is expected to make his season debut in tonight’s NFC wild-card game against the Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium.
To make room on the roster, the Bucs waived backup linebacker J.J. Russell.
Read Joey Knight’s full story here.
Who’s in/who’s out
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A little light reading
Here’s some of our content leading up to today’s game:
Bucs activate center Ryan Jensen for tonight’s playoff showdown vs. Cowboys
Tom Brady believes he can drag Bucs across finish line to another Super Bowl
Tom Brady’s three years in Tampa Bay were the best century we’ve ever had
For at least one day, it’s possible for the Bucs to be great again
How much does playoff experience matter for the Bucs?
Could this be the last game for Lavonte David with the Bucs?
As his 10th NFL season winds down, William Gholston is just getting wound up
Todd Bowles expected to return as Bucs head coach in 2023 season
Has Bucs-Cowboys become the NFL’s marquee matchup of the 2020s?
Healthy Bucs enter the playoffs believing it’s a new season
A closer look at Tom Brady’s dominance of the Dallas Cowboys
Bucs receiver Mike Evans delivers ‘simple’ truth about Cowboys
The odds say it ain’t happening, but here are 10 reasons the Bucs will beat the Cowboys
Bucs join familiar club of playoff teams with a losing record
Damar Hamlin scare has Tom Brady thinking only of today, not 2023 season
Looking for a word to describe the Bucs? Try resilient
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