Prescott’s playoff answer positions Cowboys to alter history

Jan 16, 2023, 11:28 PM | Updated: Jan 17, 2023, 1:30 pm
Dallas Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz (86) vies for the catch against Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineba...

Dallas Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz (86) vies for the catch against Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White (45) during the second half of an NFL wild-card football game, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — A week after one of the worst games of his career, Dak Prescott might have played his best game given the circumstances.

The star Dallas quarterback drew high praise from plenty of important people, including club owner Jerry Jones and the most recent Cowboys QB to win a Super Bowl, ESPN analyst Troy Aikman.

Prescott’s precision in a 31-14 wild-card victory over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended an eight-game road playoff losing streak for one of the NFL’s iconic franchises.

“I think you saw the results of just absolutely a focused Dak Prescott that all year continued to strive to get better,” Jones said on his radio show Tuesday. “In my mind, it’s the best game I’ve ever seen him play.”

The bounce-back from Prescott’s horrid showing in a 26-6 loss at Washington to finish the regular season came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Cowboys’ most recent road playoff win.

Now the Cowboys (13-5) go to the scene of that NFC championship game victory during the 1992 season. Dallas visits San Francisco on Sunday with the 49ers (14-4) riding an 11-game winning streak.

With the long road playoff skid stopped, the Cowboys have to tackle another piece of history. Their six-game losing streak in the divisional round is the longest since the 1970 merger.

“We had our mind set on dominating this game and got the win,” pass rushing star Micah Parsons said. “It’s great to end streaks and start new traditions around here.”

Prescott joined Super Bowl winners Aikman and Roger Staubach as the only Dallas QBs with four touchdown passes in a playoff game, and the first to account for five TDs with his rushing score.

The 76% completion rate (25 of 33) was second to Aikman in club postseason history, a week after the worst of Prescott’s career (38%) against the Commanders.

Oh, and that pesky seven-game interception streak ended for a QB who tied for the NFL lead with 15 picks despite missing five games with a broken thumb.

“I wiped that clean, and I knew what this game meant,” said Prescott, who also had playoff career highs in yards (305) and passer rating (143.3). “I knew how important it was for us.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Against Tampa Bay, the Dallas defense looked like it did when that unit was carrying the Cowboys early in the season.

There was just one threat from Brady and the Bucs during a stretch of four consecutive touchdown drives of at least 80 yards by Dallas. It ended with an interception in the end zone, the first by Brady inside the 20 since joining Tampa Bay in 2020.

Dallas had the same number of sacks of Brady (two) from the Bucs’ 19-3 win at the Cowboys in Week 1. But consistent pressure forced plenty of incompletions.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Kicker Brett Maher was historically bad with missed extra points on his first four attempts against the Bucs. He made the fifth.

The shocking meltdown led to plenty of in-game speculation that the Cowboys would cut him and sign another kicker before going to San Francisco.

Jones and coach Mike McCarthy said after the game that wouldn’t happen, but Jones was less definitive on his radio show a day later.

“This is a classic case of looking at what he’s done for this team and done on the field all year, not just last night,” Jones said. “I thought when he came out at halftime, watched him warm up out there. He was making all the kicks. I figured that was behind him, but we will take a look at it.”

Maher tied for eighth in field-goal rate in the regular season at 90.6% (29 of 32) while missing three PATs. He didn’t attempt a field goal in the wild-card game.

STOCK UP

Dalton Schultz is the first Dallas tight end with multiple touchdown catches in a playoff game. He had the first two postseason TDs of his career against the Bucs.

The Cowboys’ franchise tag player this season has led the team in catches and yards in each of the past two playoff games, including the 23-17 wild-card loss at home to the 49ers last season.

STOCK DOWN

It’s hard to ignore the reality of the fading influence of Ezekiel Elliott in the run game. The two-time rushing champ had just two fewer carries than Tony Pollard but 50 fewer yards. Elliott averaged 2.1 yards per carry (13 for 27) compared to 5.1 for Pollard (15 for 77).

Pollard led the team in rushing during the regular season, the first time Elliott hasn’t done that since getting drafted fourth overall in 2016.

INJURIES

LT Jason Peters is expected to miss the San Francisco game with a hip injury that sidelined him in the first half against the Bucs. … S Jayron Kearse injured a knee, but the team is optimistic about him playing.

KEY NUMBER

36 — The victory was the 36th in the playoffs for the Cowboys, who have five Super Bowl titles and a 36-29 postseason record. Brady, who has seven championships, also was going for his 36th playoff win.

NEXT STEPS

The ninth postseason meeting with the 49ers will tie the Los Angeles Rams for the most of any Dallas opponent. The Cowboys are 4-5 against LA and 5-3 against San Francisco.

___

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Prescott’s playoff answer positions Cowboys to alter history