Will the Cowboys show up against Tampa Bay? They’ll need to if Dallas wants to make more than a cameo appearance this postseason.
The Cowboys are three-point favorites to win at Tampa Bay on Monday night, a result that would end the club’s eight-game road playoff losing streak that dates to the time of Alvin Harper running wild and free across the Candlestick Park turf in a game that gave birth to “How ‘Bout Them Cowboys!”
More specifically, who among the 2022 version of America’s Team is poised to make the plays to beat the Buccaneers and not only end Tom Brady’s seven-game winning streak against Dallas, but advance the Cowboys into the next round of the playoffs? We know who made the Pro Bowl for this squad, whom the standouts were during a second consecutive 12-5 season and whom the featured players are always expected to be.
But are they ready for it?
Something tells me that Micah Parsons is ready, although the case is not made by recent statistics. It’s more about his attitude, his general understanding of the game that seems to go beyond the average second-year player even if he might keep remarks about Jalen Hurts to himself next time the subject is raised.
First, Parsons was the king of understatement following Dallas’ no-show effort in a 26-6 loss to the Commanders. “When you talk about finishing a season strong, I wouldn’t consider that finishing strong,’’ Parsons said.
“When you talk about championship teams, you gotta perform better, but you know I think everyone has a fall and there’s a rise in every movie, so, hopefully, this was our fall. So we can rise up next week, get it together because we gotta play better.’’
This movie lost a substantial part of its audience late Sunday afternoon. To recapture that crowd, Parsons needs to use the extra day of rest prior to the Monday kickoff to become the player people were comparing to Lawrence Taylor back in October. Parsons had 13.5 sacks this season — 12 in the first 11 games and 1.5 in the final six. He had 35 tackles through the Minnesota game, the team’s finest hour. He had seven tackles in the final seven games.
We can almost assume the Cowboys, with their gaping hole at cornerback opposite Trevon Diggs, are going to struggle to contain Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The saving grace is Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong applying enough heat on the immobile Brady to turn him into a Dak-like turnover machine.
Even with that, you have to wonder about Dallas stopping the Bucs on the ground. They haven’t really shut down a running game this season, didn’t even stop Washington’s rookie quarterback and practice squad tailback from leading a 151-yard rushing attack. Tampa Bay does not have a good backfield with Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White both well below average in yards per carry. But Fournette carved up the Cowboys for 127 yards in the opener and he rested Sunday against Atlanta, so who’s to say he can’t copy the great Jaret Patterson and get something going Monday night?
The point is the offense is going to have to score more than six points — more like 26 — and stop giving touchdowns to the opposing defense. That’s a Dak issue, and even though he’s coming off his worst season and has a 1-3 playoff record, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that he plays poorly in Tampa. But he needs considerable help.
Where have you gone, Tony Pollard? I thought he was the saving grace for this offense, the electrifying talent that would provide whatever spark is required. In Pollard’s last four games, he has rushed 45 times for 155 yards (3.4 yard average). While that’s not as dreadful as Ezekiel Elliott’s 2.7 average over his last four, the running game is nonexistent. The idea that center Tyler Biadasz’s return will elevate this unit feels laughable.
CeeDee Lamb caught 107 passes for more than 1,300 yards in 2022 despite a relatively slow start. He remembers that one-catch performance against the 49ers a year ago all too well. Lamb has to be as good as Evans and Godwin, and that’s not an unreasonable request, but either Michael Gallup or T.Y. Hilton has to join in on the fun. Tampa Bay has a beatable secondary but the same was said of Washington at various points this season, and the Cowboys passing game has rarely looked worse than it did in its final game. Lamb, tight end Dalton Schultz and a couple of big plays from Gallup — can we dispense with the deep balls to Noah Brown? — could be the equalizer this team has to find in order to compete, possibly even live up to its suspect status as a three-point favorite.
For a sign of hope Sunday night, Prescott pointed to the Cowboys’ last game at Tampa Bay, the 2021 season opener that the Bucs won 31-29 despite 402 yards passing from Dak. That was when the Cowboys had the three-headed monster at wide receiver, and Amari Cooper accounted for 139 of the 279 yards that he, Lamb and Gallup managed that night.
Turning back the clock to a roster that’s no longer in place can’t be the answer. I think that brings us back to Parsons and some playmaking on defense we haven’t seen the last month if Dallas wants to make more than a cameo appearance this postseason.