After losing to the Commanders in Week 18, the Cowboys locked themselves into the top wild card spot and the fifth seed in the NFC. That meant Dallas was set to go on the road and travel to Tampa Bay to face the Buccaneers in the Wild Card round.
The Cowboys will enter Monday night facing the Buccaneers with minimal momentum after a brutal showing against Washington. Dallas is coming off their worst game of the season, especially on offense.
Prescott and the offense had just 182 total yards and Tony Pollard was the team’s leading ball carrier with seven carries for 19 yards. That alone shows just how much Dallas struggled on offense in Week 18.
Speaking of struggles, Prescott continued his interception streak on Sunday, throwing his third pick-6 of the year. That tied Davis Mils for the most this season. Prescott also tied Mills with the most interceptions on the year with 15.
The interceptions have been a problem for the Cowboys quarterback all season long and he enters the playoffs with a pick in seven straight games.
Prescott has to really clean up the interceptions in the playoffs. But remember Matthew Stafford’s interception problems in the regular season last year — he led the league with 17. The Rams then went on to win the Super Bowl despite Stafford throwing three more in the postseason.
Including Prescott though, the Cowboys have to play their best if they want to beat the 8-9 Buccaneers. Tampa hasn’t been a top-notch team like last season, but Brady has also made a point to play well when he faces America’s Team. He is 7-0 against Dallas in his career.
Dallas enters the game as 3-point favorites on the road and here are the two biggest X-factors for the Cowboys to come away with the win and move on to the divisional round.
Biggest X-factors for the Cowboys vs the Buccaneers
2. Leighton Vander Esch owning the middle
It sounds like Vander Esch will be back from his three-game absence on Monday and that is great news for the Cowboys.
After his special rookie season that landed him in the Pro Bowl and on the All-Pro 2nd team, Vander Esch was a disappointment in the middle of the field for his next three seasons. The Cowboys decided to bring him back on a one-year deal prior to this season and both sides benefited.
Vander Esch has had a revival season with his 90 tackles in 13 full games. He played just five snaps against the Jaguars in Week 15 in his 14th game of the season before leaving with an injury and sitting out the last three games.
The Cowboys have missed the former Pro Bowl linebacker on the field in those final three games. That’s because he has made big plays for the team whenever he plays and the Cowboys will need him to continue that in the Wild Card round.
He’ll have the responsibility of the middle of the field where Brady loves to sling it. The Buccaneers also love to run a bunch of wide receiver screens to Chris Godwin out wide, so Vander Esch will need to make those open-field tackles to limit those big plays.
Vander Esch’s return will give the Cowboys a big boost at the linebacker position and if he continues his regular season play into the postseason, he can be a big difference in this game.