THE STAGE IS SET
The star quarterbacks meet Monday night in an NFC wild-card game, and they are hoping the regular-season adversity will pave the way to a Super Bowl run.
“Everyone works hard to get to this point. There’s no more second chances,” said the 45-year-old Brady, who has the Buccaneers (8-9) in the hunt for a second title in three years despite finishing the regular season with a losing record for the first time in more than two decades as a NFL starter.
“It’s going to be hard, but we’re battle tested,” the seven-time Super Bowl champion added. “We’ve had some tough games. Some we came back from. Some we haven’t. But … close won’t be good enough going forward for anybody.”
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Perhaps no team enters the playoffs under more of a microscope than Dallas (12-5), which lost Prescott for five games after he broke his right thumb during a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, but remained in contention for the best record in the NFC until last weekend.
A listless double-digit loss to Washington in the regular-season finale raised questions about how Prescott and the Cowboys will react to beginning the postseason on the road against the Bucs.
Dallas hasn’t won a postseason game on the road since the 1992 playoffs. And the Cowboys have never beaten Brady, who is 7-0 against them, including wins with Tampa Bay in the past two season openers.
“Obviously, a lot has changed for both teams since September. I think it’s just a matter of going through the season and gathering information that feels pertinent to your game plan. That has been our approach,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said.
“But you know, it’s playoff football. The only thing we’re guaranteed is four quarters to go win and move on to the next round,” McCarthy added. “Regardless of what they did to win their division, all of that, it’s two teams lining up with the opportunity to move forward.”
A VERY DOMINANT BRADY
No one has accomplished more in the playoffs than Brady, who is looking to add to numerous postseason records, including most games played (47), wins (35), Super Bowl titles (seven) and appearances (10), passing yards (13,049) and touchdowns passes (86).
Despite breaking his own NFL mark for completions in a season (490) and throwing for the third-most yards in the league (4,694), the Buccaneers have been inconsistent on offense and haven’t won more than two games in a row at any point.
There’s comfort, though, in knowing a five-time Super Bowl MVP is on your side.
“He understands how these games have to be played. The last of my worries, really, is Tom,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.
“When you get in these moments, it’s (about) making sure we’re good around him, making sure we’re all on the same page,” Leftwich added. “That’s what bit us early in the year. It’s hard to get people on the same page when you’re not practicing and there’s a different guy in the huddle every day and there’s youth in the huddle. … I think we have benefited from some of those young guys playing a lot.”
Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn told some of his players the Cowboys haven’t won a road game in the playoffs since the 1992 season, when a 30-20 victory over San Francisco in the NFC championship game sparked a run of three Super Bowl titles in four years.
The losing streak is at eight games, with the most recent defeat coming to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round to finish the 2018 season. The Cowboys are opening on the road in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 season, when Tony Romo flubbed the snap on a potential winning field goal in the final two minutes of a 21-20 loss at Seattle.
“We’re just going to go out there and try to rewrite that,” said safety Jayron Kearse, who volunteered that Quinn had brought it up. “It’s just part of having the star on your helmet. The things that people talk about. It hasn’t been since ’92. Ninety-two to 2023, that means nothing.”
There is a positive side to history for the Cowboys. They are 2-0 against Tampa Bay in the playoffs, although both victories were at home in early 1980s.
Two players had to move on the already unsettled Dallas offensive line when center Tyler Biadasz injured an ankle two weeks ago. Now that he appears set to return, those players are likely moving back, too.
Rookie Tyler Smith figures to return to left tackle, where he has been most of the season after eight-time Pro Bowler Tyron Smith tore a hamstring in training camp. Tyler Smith slid over to left guard after Biadasz’s injury because Connor McGovern had to move to center.
Right tackle Terence Steele’s season-ending knee injury came the week before Tyron Smith was ready for his first game of the season. Rather than move Tyler Smith, the Cowboys decided to put Tyron Smith at right tackle for the first time since his rookie year in 2011.
The most recent shuffling affected the running game more than all the uncertainty before it. The Cowboys were held to fewer than 100 yards on the ground in consecutive games for the first time this season in the final two games of the regular season.
Brady, who retired last winter only to announce 40 days later he was returning for a third year with the Buccaneers, will be a free agent at the end of season. He continues to shrug off questions about his plans beyond these playoffs.
“I haven’t thought about any of that,” he said. “I just want to be the best I can for my teammates every day and show up like a professional, come out and play good.”
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.
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