Brady or Bust for Buccaneers Against Cowboys

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Wild Card - Seventeen weeks separate us from Week 1's Sunday night matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Between then and now, expectations for both of these teams have shifted dramatically. They ended up on the upset end of Any Given Sunday articles a combined five times this season. The Buccaneers were barely able to handle business in one of the league's worst divisions, sneaking into the playoffs as NFC South champions below .500 on the back of their 45-year-old quarterback. The Cowboys somehow shook off a Dak Prescott stint on injured reserve by going 4-1 in his absence, only for water to find its level in the form of crushing losses in the back half of what was supposed to be an easy schedule.

Still, this might be the marquee matchup of wild-card weekend. As Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David put it, it's America's team against the golden boy. Any time Tom Brady takes on the Dallas Cowboys, that becomes appointment television no matter the midseason struggles. Strip the marquee lights away, and you still have a fascinating matchup on both sides of the ball with teams that are no strangers to fourth-quarter fireworks and overtime bouts. By providence or by planning, the NFL managed to save the best of Super Wild-Card Weekend for last.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  DAL TB
DVOA 18.0% (6) -0.7% (17)
WEI DVOA 13.7% (7) -11.6% (25)
Cowboys on Offense
  DAL OFF TB DEF
DVOA 2.9% (15) -2.9% (13)
WEI DVOA 3.3% (13) 5.5% (25)
PASS 12.8% (13) 2.7% (15)
RUSH 1.2% (10) -10.4% (13)
Buccaneers on Offense
  DAL DEF TB OFF
DVOA -13.3% (2) 0.4% (16)
WEI DVOA -9.4% (6) -0.8% (17)
PASS -11.3% (3) 17.9% (11)
RUSH -15.7% (5) -18.6% (30)
Special Teams
  DAL TB
DVOA 1.8% (10) -4.0% (31)

If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL

DAL Week-to-Week DVOA

Remember when talk show hosts debated whether the Cowboys should ride the hot hand and start Cooper Rush over Dak Prescott? That was fun. Prescott exited Week 1's game against the Buccaneers with a fractured thumb and Rush held down the fort surprisingly well. The Cowboys rode an unexpected 4-1 stint from Rush into Prescott's return, headed into their Week 9 bye with a 6-2 record and the third-best total DVOA in football.

The wheels fell off shortly thereafter. The Cowboys only dropped three games in the last nine games of the season, but they happened in such brutal fashion that it becomes hard to rationalize. The Packers forced overtime following two turnovers fueled by offensive miscommunication. Dallas blew a 17-point lead to the Jaguars only to lose on a walkoff overtime pick-six. Then, with home-field advantage left to fight for, the Cowboys forgot to show up to FedEx Field and got handed their worst overall loss of the season.

It's tough to make heads or tails of Prescott this season. After missing five weeks, Prescott's return was a bit of a mixed bag. His impact is undeniable: Dallas had a 7.2% passing DVOA with Cooper Rush at the helm compared to their 19.7% after Prescott's return. However, his 7.3 yards per attempt is the lowest since 2017, while his 66.2% completion rate is his lowest since 2019. Prescott's 15 interceptions both lead the league and serve as a new career high. Some games see Prescott throw three touchdowns en route to a victory, others see him throw back-breaking interceptions leading to losses.

Part of the interception problem for the Cowboys is fueled by the tight windows Prescott is forced to throw into. Michael Gallup and Noah Brown rank in the top 12 of wide receivers with the least separation, according to Next Gen Stats. CeeDee Lamb has been dominant for Dallas this season—he set new career benchmarks for both receiving DYAR and DVOA—but Gallup and Brown have not qualified as serviceable replacements to fill the loss of Amari Cooper. They will need to step up, considering Tampa Bay is at their best this season when defending passes to WR1s.

Dallas' running back duo Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott have been big contributors to the Cowboys offense, but even they have put on a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance this season. Through the first eight weeks of the year, the Cowboys' 10.8% offensive rushing DVOA was the fifth best in the league. Following the bye, seven of Dallas' last nine games had a negative rushing DVOA, including five straight to close out the year. Tampa Bay is not at the "Why would you run on this team?" levels they used to be at, but their run defense still remains a strength. The Buccaneers rank eighth in adjusted line yards and stuff rate.

Tampa Bay's defense has gotten some help back just in time for the playoffs. The Buccaneers will have both defensive tackle Vita Vea and cornerback Carlton Davis available for tonight's game. Vea is a force up front, leading the team in sacks and setting new career highs for tackles for loss and quarterback hits despite missing three regular-season games. Davis, according to Sports Info Solutions, is currently allowing his lowest completion percentage and yards per target since 2019. The Buccaneers defense has been a collaborative effort this season. Tampa Bay is tied for seventh in sacks with 45, but 15 different players contributed to that sack total. No one on the roster has more than Vea's 6.5. The same applies to interceptions. Tampa Bay is tied for the sixth-fewest interceptions with 10, but seven different members of the Buccaneers secondary have interceptions. That same secondary held defenses to the fourth-lowest yards per pass attempt this season.

That kind of versatility becomes a problem for a Cowboys offensive line that is struggling amid change. After they got Tyron Smith back into the lineup, Terrence Steele was knocked out for the season and placed on injured reserve. Smith's original backup, rookie Tyler Smith, has entrenched himself at the left tackle spot at this point. As to preserve the young tackle's development, Tyron moved over to right tackle, a position he has not played since 2011. The results have not been great. Prescott has taken 12 of his 20 sacks on the season since Steele was placed on injured reserve. The interior line, at least, has been exceptional. Zack Martin is third among guards in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate, while Tyler Biadasz is eighth among centers in Run Block Win Rate. However, keeping Prescott upright will be a point of emphasis for Dallas.

WWHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

TB Week-to-Week DVOA

Tampa Bay finished nine games with a negative offensive DVOA. Not only is that the most for a regular season since Brady joined the Buccaneers, but it is also the second-most by any Brady-led team, one game behind Brady's final season in New England. One thing that should be noted, though, is that Tampa Bay rose to compete with their competition. While they did go 2-5 against teams with at least eight wins, the Buccaneers finished with a better offensive DVOA (8.1%) and passing DVOA (26.6%) than their season-long numbers.

The Cowboys have especially been a tale of two halves on the defensive side of the ball. Through the first eight weeks of the season, Dallas' defense was second with a -21.3% DVOA. Following their bye in Week 9, the Cowboys defense fell to ninth place at -7.7% for the rest of the year. While their run defense DVOA slightly improved across the two periods (going from -14.3% Weeks 1-8 to -19.3% in Weeks 10-18), Dallas' pass defense DVOA went from -26.7% to 7.4%. Part of that can be credited to a big slowdown in production from their pass rush, namely Micah Parsons. Considered an early Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Parsons finished the season atop ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate rankings for edge rushers and tied for seventh in sacks. However, the second-year edge rusher had just 1.5 sacks in his final six games.

While these two units present a great potential matchup, let's get one thing out of the way: if Tampa Bay ever elects to run, it's a win for Dallas. The Buccaneers have a -18.6% rushing DVOA, better only than Houston and Indianapolis, while Dallas is fifth in the league in run defense. Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White are second- and fourth-lowest, respectively, in rushing yards per attempt among players with at least 100 carries. Tampa Bay has scored just five rushing touchdowns this season, one of which came on a Tom Brady sneak. The Cowboys have allowed the third-fewest rushing touchdowns this season with nine.

Despite the team-wide step back offensively, reports of Tom Brady's demise have been a bit exaggerated. In his age 45 season, Brady finished third in passing DYAR and eighth in DVOA. While his volume numbers are down from his previous two seasons with the Buccaneers, Brady is doing an excellent job protecting the ball. According to Pro Football Reference, Brady's league-low 2.9% sack rate is his best since 2009, while his 2.3% interception rate is second to only Daniel Jones. This will be put to the test by a Cowboys defense that generates turnovers on 16.2% of opposing drives, the highest rate in the league by nearly a full percentage point.

The way Brady is playing is a departure from his previous two in Tampa Bay. Pro Football Reference notes Brady's 6.4 yards per attempt are his lowest mark since 2002, a full yard per attempt lower than last year and 1.2 yards lower than in 2020. Despite finishing eighth in the league in touchdown passes, Brady posted the lowest touchdown rate of his career. He also has the lowest time to throw in the league at 2.45 seconds per Next Gen Stats, a full tenth of a second ahead of second place. In addition, Tampa Bay is relying on its quarterback more than ever—literally. No one has thrown more passes in a season than Tom Brady's 733 this season. There are only three seasons where a quarterback has thrown 700 times; Brady has two of them in the last two years.

Part of Brady's urgency to get the ball out comes from the revolving door that is the Buccaneers offensive line. Shaq Mason has been the lone fixture, the only member of the projected starting lineup to play all 17 games this season. However, this is arguably the healthiest Tampa Bay's offensive line has been all season. After missing stretches of play from Tristan Wirfs, Donovan Smith, and Luke Godecke, and getting as deep as their third-string starting tackle at one point, this is the closest the Buccaneers have come to their intended starting five in months. Even Ryan Jensen, placed on injured reserve during camp, has resumed practice and could make his debut Monday night. This could not come at a better time, considering Dallas ranks second in both adjusted sack rate and Pass Rush Win Rate.

Tampa Bay's receiving corps has not quite lived up to its pedigree. Mike Evans posted his lowest receiving DYAR and DVOA since 2017. Chris Godwin has set a new career-low in yards per target and has his lowest catch rate since Brady joined the Buccaneers. Julio Jones missed seven games and had a worse regular-season DVOA than his season in Tennessee. Russell Gage is set to post his lowest DYAR as a consistent starter. The tight end play, a staple of Brady's passing game, is the worst it has been in the last three years. Rookie Cade Otton has outperformed Cameron Brate all year; Brate has yet to re-capture the DVOA numbers he posted with Brady in 2020.

However, the wide receiver play has improved significantly now that the receiving corps is fully replenished. In the last four weeks of the season, Evans (20.5%), Godwin (14.4%), and Gage (16.0%) have far out-performed their season-long DVOA, while Jones (-5.1%) has improved more modestly. Evans broke an 11-game scoreless streak with a three-touchdown performance against the Carolina Panthers. Godwin has caught 91.2% of passes (31-for-34) for 321 yards over that same stretch.

The battle through the air will make the difference Monday night. Sports Info Solutions presents a very unique matchup schematically. No defense has played more press coverage than Dallas this year. Tampa Bay's offense has seen the lowest rate of press coverage this year. While Dallas boasts a strong pass defense, the Cowboys rank 13th in DVOA against WR1s and 32nd against WR2s. At their best, Tampa Bay has the ability to lean on an elite wide receiver tandem, perfectly equipped to attack this defense. In addition, the Buccaneers' eighth-ranked red zone passing offense will have the chance to capitalize against a 25th-ranked Cowboys red zone pass defense.

If this game comes down to the fourth quarter, this side of the ball is set to produce some fireworks. By DVOA, Tampa Bay performs best offensively during the fourth quarter and overtime with a sixth-best 11.6%. In addition, Brady leads all quarterbacks in fourth-quarter/overtime DYAR with 523. Dallas is dominant defensively no matter the quarter, but no one has been better late. In the fourth quarter and overtime, the Cowboys defense boasts a league-best -30.4% DVOA.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Dallas can reclaim some of the edge lost to injury and matchup by executing in special teams. Tampa Bay's -4.0% special teams DVOA sits ahead of only the New England Patriots, who leap-frogged them (backwards) in Week 18 by letting up two kick return touchdowns. Speaking of which, the Cowboys may have an opportunity to set their offense up nicely off kick returns. KaVontae Turpin has been a quality rookie return man for Dallas. His 10.4 yards per punt return and 24.2 yards per kick return rank fifth and six respectively. Tampa Bay ranks 28th on kickoffs and 24th on punts in our special teams ratings.

If the game comes down to kicks, the edge again goes to Dallas. Brett Maher has been automatic this season, with just one miss on 21 attempts from inside 50 and 9-for-11 from 50-plus. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, may be looking to replace 36-year-old Ryan Succop this offseason. He is 31-for-38 this season with a two-for-seven mark from outside 50 and a miss inside 30 yards.

OUTLOOK

On paper this should be a Dallas victory. Tampa Bay was unable to produce most of the season against a weak division. On a roster-versus-roster basis, the Cowboys outperform the Buccaneers considerably. That being said, these teams feel like they are on two opposite paths. Tampa Bay struggled with their injury bug early in the season and the Bucs are starting to look like their best selves after putting together a string of quality performances (albeit most ending in losses). Dallas, on the other hand, is being dealt injuries to crucial positions with little time and ability to adjust. The Cowboys also ended their season on the worst-possible note with regards to game performance, and Prescott has not looked himself.

 

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

3 comments, Last at 17 Jan 2023, 8:42am

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 16, 2023 - 4:20pm

Tampa's hopes rely on Brady remembering he's Brady, and Dallas remembering it's Dallas.

\rumors are not true that Tampa Bay may use Green Bay jerseys for this game

Points: 0

#2 by rh1no // Jan 16, 2023 - 6:26pm

With so many uncertainties at play, I'm picking the winner of this game based on the one factor about which I'm certain: Tom Brady knows how to win football games. 

Id love to be proven wrong, but I'm going with the Buccaneers by a TD. 

Points: 0

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