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Spagnola: Busting Up Those Ghosts Of The Past

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TAMPA, Fla. – Well, take that and that and that you ol' bad history.

So the Cowboys weren't supposed to be able to win a road playoff game, zero in their last eight, having to go back 30 years to find the last one, a 30-20 NFC Championship victory at San Francisco. And am proud to say was there to witness that.

Ha.

So the Cowboys weren't supposed to be able to win on grass fields, so many buying into that natural stuff slowing them down, taking away their speed defensively.

Ha.

So the Cowboys weren't supposed to be able to beat Tom Brady, having lost all seven meetings with the G.O.A.T, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers laughing on the sideline after beating them in the season opener that seventh time. Thought it was pretty funny back on 9/11. Giggles all around.

Ha.

And oh, all that pressure on Dak Prescott, so many wanting to point out "his" playoff record, and that, too, of head coach Mike McCarthy's with the Cowboys, even though he had been here just two previous years and lost his only playoff game.

Ha.

All these narratives over the past eight days, plus a loss to the Washington Commanders in Game 17 of the regular season, creating a fidgety fan base sacred to look here Monday night at Raymond James Stadium in this Super Wild Card Weekend playoff game.

But all that malarky, that was on the Cowboys organization. Past history. Past playoff history. Thirty years in some cases of history. Those ghosts of the past.

But here, please meet your 2022 Dallas Cowboys. Dak and CeeDee and Gallup and Schultzie and Jayron and Donovan and Leighton and Trevon and Micah and D-Law, the Tylers and them. And chew on this cigar:

Cowboys 31, Buccaneers 14.

Hey, the Cowboys are 1-0 against Brady in playoff history and 3-0 all-time against the Bucs in the playoffs. What you got to say about that history?

"If you need to paint a picture of playoff football, this is about as good as I can give you in the playoffs," McCarthy said. "You know that you're playing a champion in their home."

For this, the Cowboys earn a trip back to San Francisco to take on the hottest team in the NFL – 11 consecutive wins now – at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in a divisional round playoff game. And once again getting the short stick, having to play in six days when the 49ers get eight days to prepare for this 30-year rematch from 1992, though that one was for all the NFC Championship marbles and the right to head to the Super Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

But baby, this one, just their second playoff victory in the last six, wasn't even that close. These ghosts-of-the-past busters simply clobbered the erstwhile 8-9 Buccaneers, winners of the NFC South, sorta by default since the rest of the division inhaled air. This 17-point spread wasn't even that close and would have been far worse if kicker Brett Maher hadn't missed four of five extra-point kicks, and at least for this game giving new meaning to "extra" since the Cowboys really didn't need those points to pound home their playoff point.

In fact, the Cowboys 17-point victory was the second largest of this year's six first-round games, only San Francisco's 18-pointer over Seattle more dominating, so how fitting that's the Cowboys next stop on what might be their wild mystery tour.

Otherwise, if not for the guy who had gone 50 of 53 over 17 games converting extra points, this would have been a 35-14 victory. And remember this, the great Tom Brady and the Bucs didn't do squat offensively until the Cowboys had built a 24-0 lead by scoring on four consecutive possessions and then a 31-6 lead when scoring on five of six possessions.

In fact, get this: With the Cowboys up 24-0, and 3:09 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay had only gained 150 of its eventual 386 yards. That's it. And once the Cowboys went up 31-6, and backed off defensively, realizing there likely were not enough possessions left in the game for the Bucs to rally as long as the Cowboys didn't give up big plays and didn't turn the ball over, the Buccaneers piled up some yardage but only one more meaningless score.

And this was so bad, but Tampa Bay began running the ball since the Cowboys had forced Brady into throwing 66 times. That 66 should be a cross-country Route number not the number of pass attempts.

Nice the Bucs scored that consolation touchdown with 2:04 left, setting off a ridiculous number of perfunctory fireworks, with the Pirate ship firing away and leaving their cheerleaders with these obligated, pasted-on smiles and a stadium now overrun with Cowboys cheering wildly since their red-clad faithful probably wanted to drown their sorrows in the bay.

And for sure didn't want to see the Cowboys offensive linemen do the Landry Shift before kneeling out the final two plays of the game.

Now why did the Cowboys clobber the Bucs, their largest playoff margin of victory and matching the most playoff points scored since the Cowboys defeated the Eagles 34-14 in the 2009 season playoffs?

First, Dak Prescott was fantastic, completing 25 of 33 passes for 305 yards, four TDs, no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 143.3, plus running for a score, the first Cowboys' first QB in playoff history to bag five combined touchdowns. Guess they will have to push delete on all those many crawlers on pregame TV shows, abusing Dak and doubting he was any match for Brady. Oh, Brady wasn't any match, Dak way better and the Cowboys infinitely better than the Bucs.

All that, at least for now, because with these Cowboys 2022, Prescott is 1-0 in the playoffs. So are these Cowboys, showing they are not responsible for any previous failures.

Second, the offensive line. That group played at a high level, and as veteran Zack Martin said, credit to Tyler Biadasz for rehabbing a high ankle sprained, suffered against Tennessee, in time to get back for this game. Credit to selfless Connor McGovern, willing to give up his starting left guard spot – after being forced to start at center in Game 17 – in order to play fullback, but then jumped back into left guard when Jason Peters suffered what is believed to be a season-ending, possibly career ending at 40 years old hip injury. These guys served and protected Dak as if wearing one of them shields.

And then there was this defense. Big kudos to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, devising a scheme while shorthanded at cornerback to short-circuit Brady in a somewhat unconventional way. Remember, no Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown at corner. The candidates for the third corner spot were slim, and even slimmer when the Cowboys made two of them, Nahshon Wright and Trayvon Mullen, inactive.

So to counter the unavailable, Quinn mostly kept rookie DaRon Bland at left cornerback. He then used a combination of safeties Jayron Kearse and Israel Mukuamu as his slot corners, and check this out: Kearse, though suffering a sprained MCL the club is hopeful he'll be able recover from in time to play this coming Sunday, ended up nabbing the first end-zone interception of Brady since 2019 and had three passes defensed.

Then Mukuamu, a little used safety but former corner in college. He had four tackles and two passes broken up, one of those almost a pick. For nearly three quarters, the Cowboys had shut out Brady, and even after Dallas went up 31-6, Brady was but was just 20 of 41 for 202 yards.

And late in the game, after Kearse suffered his knee sprain and Mukuamu went down (they are hoping it was just a cramp), in comes newly acquired Xavier Rhodes.

This is not to say the Cowboys confused Brady. It's just that the coverages, man and some zones, simply covered the Buccaneers receivers, giving up only two plays of at least 20 yards and Brady averaging just more than 5.3 yards an attempt, mediocre by any standard and for sure his.

"Not the way we wanted to end it, but we didn't deserve it," Brady said. "I give them a lot of credit. They played a good game – made a lot more plays than we did. So, tough night."

Sweet night though for the Cowboys, a postgame celebration somewhat muted, as if a team expecting to do what they did and knowing the stakes only increase going forward. But hey, it's forward.

"I'm just proud that the journey keeps going," McCarthy would say. "That's really where my mind has always been. I get all the bells and whistles that go with the game, and history is important and so-forth, but this was about the 2022 Cowboys and the Buccaneers. It's as simple and as clean as that. I know it might not be sexy, but that's how we go.

"We're excited we get to go to San Francisco."

Leaving behind those other teams' ghosts of playoffs past.

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