Head coach Mike McCarthy stated earlier in the season that defenses win championships, but quarterbacks win Super Bowls.
Ladies and gentlemen, Dak Prescott.
While there is still a long way to go in this postseason tournament, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback was simply outstanding in leading his team to a 31-14 victory over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this NFC Wild Card matchup. In doing so, the Cowboys won their first playoff game on the road since the 1992 NFC Championship Game, a 30-20 victory at the San Francisco 49ers.
But that was ancient history thanks to Prescott and company. After missing his first three passes of the night, and being sacked on his fourth drop-back, the Dallas quarterback was nearly unstoppable, completing 25 of his next 30 attempts for 305 yards. In all, he posted a 75.8 completion percentage with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 143.3 passer rating.
Along the way, he set a franchise playoff record with 11 straight completions and passed Tony Romo for the fourth-most career postseason passing touchdowns, now totaling 10. He also tied Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman for the club's most scoring passes in a playoff game.
Dalton Schultz was the primary beneficiary of Prescott's performance, becoming the first tight end in Cowboys record books with two receiving touchdowns in a playoff game. He earned seven catches for 95 yards, both team highs, as eight different players hauled in passes.
For all the offensive fireworks, the Dallas defense was perhaps even more dominating. Brady did throw for 351 yards, but it took 66 pass attempts. He completed just 53 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and an interception for a 72.2 rating. The Cowboys also limited the Buccaneers' ground game to only 52 yards. Micah Parsons and Johnathan Hankins each had a sack while Leighton Vander Esch topped the club with nine tackles. Both Hankins and Vander Esch were back in the lineup after missing the previous four and three games, respectively.
The only drawback of the night was the inexplicable troubles of kicker Brett Maher. One of the best in the business throughout the regular season, he missed his first four extra-point attempts. Thankfully, his early inaccuracy didn't affect the outcome of this one.
Regardless, the Buccaneers were simply no match for the Cowboys on this night.
It took a couple of series for the offenses to catch up after both defenses dominated through the first five minutes of the quarter. But on their third try, the Cowboys not only got the game's initial first down but also opened the scoring.
The seven-play, 80-yard drive saw Tony Pollard rush four times for 25 yards with Prescott connecting with Michael Gallup for 15 yards and picking up a 15-yard roughing the passer call for another 15. The quarterback then capped off the series with a 22-yard strike to Schultz, and while Maher pushed his extra point to the right, no good, Dallas had the early lead, 6-0.
On the second play of the second frame, the Cowboys averted disaster. Brady marched his troops all the way to the Dallas 5-yard line, but on second-and-goal, his toss into the back, middle of the end zone was snatched by safety Jayron Kearse, the Cowboys securing Brady's first red-zone interception since the 2019 season.
Given the gift, Prescott took charge, leading his team the full 80 yards on 15 plays. During the drive, the quarterback completed all six of his pass attempts for 71 yards, but used his legs to cross the goal line, taking a bootleg around the left end on fourth-and-1 for the touchdown. The struggles continued for Maher, though, as he again pushed his extra point wide right.
With his latest effort, Prescott recorded both a passing and rushing touchdown in his fourth consecutive playoff game, the only player in NFL history to post such a streak. He also became the sixth quarterback in league annals to turn the trick in four postseason games overall.
With the defense again forcing another Buccaneers punt, the Cowboys had 3:32 to work with before the end of the half. That was plenty of time. Again Prescott was superb as he completed 7 of 9 passes for 83 yards and also scrambled for 11 yards, diving for the first down on third-and-6. On the touchdown throw, he rolled to his left to avoid pressure and then found Schultz again 11 yards away for the points. In a now disturbing trend, Maher this time missed his extra point to the left, but Dallas went into the locker room with an 18-0 advantage at the break.
Left tackle Jason Peters was ruled out after suffering a hip injury late in the second quarter, but with rookie Tyler Smith moving from left guard back out to tackle and Connor McGovern coming in for Smith, the team's offensive train didn't slow down.
Starting at their own 14-yard line, the Cowboys only needed eight plays to reach the end zone for the fourth consecutive possession. Prescott hit Schultz for 26 yards – the tight end making an impressive juggling catch – which was followed later by a connection to CeeDee Lamb for 26 more and an 18-yard Pollard run. The quarterback then found Gallup in the end zone from 2 yards out for the touchdown. Another miss from Maher, this one off the top of the right upright, officially made his night one of the worst in playoff history, but Dallas' commanding lead made his frustrating effort a non-factor.
Despite being deep in the hole, Tampa Bay wasn't buried just yet. The Buccaneers went on a 10-play, 95-yard drive at the end of the quarter with Brady's last two passes of the series going for 18 yards to wideout Mike Evans and then a 30-yarder to receiver Julio Jones in the end zone. The Cowboys may have benefited from a no-call on a possible defensive holding call on the two-point conversion, but regardless, the pass attempt fell incomplete.
Dallas had an answer, though. Again, Prescott sliced and diced the Buccaneers secondary. Along the way, he hit Noah Brown for 15 yards and Gallup for 12 before he and the offense found themselves facing fourth-and-4 at the Tamp Bay 18-yard line. With McCarthy deciding to go for it, Prescott found a wide-open Lamb on the left side for the easy touchdown. And Cowboys Nation took a collectively sigh of relief when Maher split the uprights to convert the extra point and push the lead to 31-6.
If not buried before, the Buccaneers essentially were now with just over 10 minutes left in the game. They did reach the Cowboys' 2-yard line on their next possession, but Brady's desperation pass under pressure fell incomplete on fourth-and-goal, Dallas taking over on downs.
Unfortunately, a scary moment occurred with less than three minutes remaining when Tampa Bay receiver Russell Gage had to be carted off the field due to injury, giving a thumbs up as he headed to the tunnel.
When action return, Brady then completed an 11-play, 52-yard drive with an 8-yard throw to tight end Cameron Brate and converted the two-point conversion with a strike to Evans. When the Buccaneers then recovered the onside kick at their own 49-yard line with 2:04 on the clock, things got a little uneasy.
In the end, however, it was too little too late.
Thanks to the 17-point victory, the Cowboys will now travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers next Sunday, Jan. 22, at 5:30 p.m. CT on FOX in the divisional round of the playoffs.