Bucs, Cowboys look for fresh start in wild-card matchup

DALLAS (12-5) vs TAMPA BAY (8-9)

Monday, 8:15 p.m. EST, ESPN

FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK NFL LINE: Cowboys by 2 1/2.

AGAINST THE SPREAD: Cowboys 10-7, Buccaneers 4-12-1.

SERIES RECORD: Cowboys lead 15-6.

LAST MEETING: Buccaneers beat Cowboys 19-3, Sept. 11, 2022, at Dallas.

LAST WEEK: Cowboys lost to Commanders 26-6; Buccaneers lost to Falcons 30-17.

COWBOYS OFFENSE: OVERALL (11), RUSH (9), PASS (14), SCORING (4).

COWBOYS DEFENSE: OVERALL (12), RUSH (22), PASS 8), SCORING (5).

BUCCANEERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (15), RUSH (32), PASS (2), SCORING (25).

BUCCANEERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (T9), RUSH (15), PASS (9), SCORING (13).

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Cowboys plus-10; Buccaneers minus-2

COWBOYS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Dak Prescott finished the regular season on a career-worst, seven-game interception streak. He threw a pick-6 in three of the last four games. Prescott’s 15 interceptions tied Davis Mills of three-win Houston for the most in the NFL despite the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year missing five games with a broken thumb. The Dallas offense was much better with Prescott than without, but turnovers have been an issue that could cost the Cowboys in the playoffs.

BUCCANEERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Tom Brady broke his own NFL record for completions in a season with 490 while throwing for 4,694 yards, third most in the league behind Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. But those impressive numbers didn’t translate into a winning record as the Bucs struggled to sustain drives and ranked 25th in scoring offense as Brady threw for 25 touchdowns, compared to 43 last season. Nobody has been better in the postseason than the seven-time Super Bowl champion, who holds records for most playoff games (47), wins (35), passing yards (13,049) and TD passes (86).

KEY MATCHUP: Cowboys LB Micah Parsons vs. the Buccaneers offensive line charged with the responsibility for protecting Brady. One of the keys to the game figures to be whether the Parsons-led Dallas pass rush can make the Bucs star uncomfortable in the pocket. Parsons had two sacks in the Cowboys’ season-opening loss to Tampa Bay and finished with 13 1/2. The second-year pro also led the league with 90 QB pressures. The Bucs offensive line has been a liability at times this season, in part because injuries have thrust young, inexperienced backups into starting roles. LT Donovan Smith (foot) and RT Tristan Wirfs (ankle) did not play in last week’s regular-season finale. C Robert Hainsey left the finale with a sore hamstring.

KEY INJURIES: The story for Dallas is more about players returning than players missing. LB Leighton Vander Esch (neck), DT Johnathan Hankins (pectoral muscle) and C Tyler Biadasz (ankle) are expected back. Vander Esch missed the last three games of the regular season while Biadasz was sidelined for the finale and Hankins the last four. ... CB DaRon Bland didn’t play in the second half against Washington, but is expected to be available. The Cowboys have already had season-ending injuries to CBs Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown. ... In addition to Wirfs and Smith, Tampa Bay played its regular-season finale without NT Vita Vea (calf), WR Julio Jones (knee), S Mike Edwards (hamstring/hip), CB Carlton Davis (shoulder), LB Carl Nassib (pectoral). There's a chance most —if not all — of them could return Monday night. The Bucs are also evaluating C Ryan Jensen, who's been designated to return from injured reserve after sitting out the entire season with a knee injury suffered on the second day of training camp.

SERIES NOTES: The Cowboys won both previous playoff meetings, each in the early 1980s. Dallas won seven of the previous eight meetings before Brady’s teams took the past two season openers. Brady is 7-0 all time with 15 TD passes vs. five interceptions against the Cowboys. He's averaged 277.9 yards per game passing in those matchups.

STATS AND STUFF: The Cowboys have an eight-game road losing streak in the playoffs. The most recent victory was 30-20 at San Francisco in the NFC championship game during the 1992 season. Dallas went on to win three of the next four Super Bowls. The Cowboys haven’t even reached an NFC title game since the last of those Super Bowl titles. ... The Cowboys are opening on the road in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 season, when Tony Romo infamously flubbed the hold on a potential winning field goal in the final two minutes of a 21-20 wild-card loss at Seattle. ... Dallas led the NFL with 33 takeaways and is the first team since the 1972-74 Pittsburgh Steelers to lead the league in that category in consecutive seasons. ... The Cowboys had 48 sacks through 12 games but just five in the last five games. They finished tied for third in the NFL with 54 after leading the league in sacks most of the season. ... This is the fourth playoff appearance in seven seasons for QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, whose remarkable rookie year together in 2016 led to the top seed in the NFC before a divisional-round loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Prescott and Elliott have a 1-3 postseason record after last season’s 23-17 wild-card loss to the 49ers at home. ... RB Tony Pollard had just 19 yards rushing against the Commanders, but it was enough for his first 1,000-yard season (1,007). Dallas was held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in back-to-back games to finish the regular season, a first in 2022. ... Ezekiel Elliott’s career-best streak of nine consecutive games with at least one rushing TD ended against Washington. It was the longest active streak in the NFL. ... WR CeeDee Lamb finished the regular season with nine touchdown catches, the club’s most since Dez Bryant’s franchise-record 16 in 2014. ... Parsons had half a sack more than the 13 from last season, when he was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. But Parsons was limited to 1 1/2 in the last six games. ... Bland finished second among NFL rookies with five interceptions. It’s the most for a Dallas rookie since Derek Ross and Roy Williams had five apiece in 2002. ... S Malik Hooker tied his career high with three interceptions. ... The Bucs won the NFC South for the second straight season, the first back-to-back division titles in franchise history. Last year, they beat Philadelphia in a NFC wild-card game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round. ... Since Brady's arrival in 2020, the Bucs have won 37 games (including postseason) — third most in the NFL behind the Kansas City Chiefs (44) and Buffalo Bills (40). ... The Bucs defense has forced a league-high 16 turnovers over the past two postseasons. Those takeaway have led to 72 points. ... WR Mike Evans (1,124) is the first player in NFL history to begin a career with nine consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving. Chris Godwin (1,023) returned earlier than expected from a serious knee injury to lead the team with 104 receptions and his third 1,000-yard season. ... RB Leonard Fournette has 555 scrimmage yards in five playoff games with the Bucs. Going back to 2017, when Fournette was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he has scored a TD in seven straight postseason games.

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