Cowboys-Bucs Monday Nighter Signals Detente Between NFL and ESPN

Two decades have elapsed since Tom Brady first matched wits with the Dallas Cowboys, and while that game may be best remembered as a defensive struggle between the Scowling Bills (Parcells and Belichick), it set a precedent. Over the course of the last 20 years, Brady has assembled a 7-0 record against the Cowboys, and tonight he’ll look to extend that streak in his first postseason clash with Jerry Jones’ club.

Dallas’ defensive unit doesn’t seem overly concerned about the Brady legend, the formation of which began when many of the current Cowboys were still rocking footy pajamas. During that first meeting on Nov. 16, 2003, Brady was 26 years old and hurtling to a second Super Bowl victory, while Dallas outside linebacker Micah Parsons was just four-and-a-half and probably more interested in dinosaurs than football. Cornerback Trevon Diggs still had a mouthful of baby teeth.

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Then there’s Jayron Kearse. A relative oldster at 28, Kearse prefers to live in the immediate present. When asked last week about Dallas’ struggles against the man with the seven championship rings, the strong safety told reporters that he wasn’t interested in history, ancient or recent. “It’s 2023. He ain’t beat us this year,” Kearse said during a locker room scrum. “So, that’s all we’re worried about.”

Brady and the Bucs last beat Dallas just 127 days ago, during their Sept. 11 season opener, but Kearse’s point stands. Nobody advances to the postseason by looking backwards, and that Sunday night skirmish certainly didn’t have the look and feel of a playoff preview. Behind a battered O-line, Brady was largely ineffective, as 12 of the Bucs’ 19 points came via Ryan Succop field goals. Capping a mostly miserable performance, Dak Prescott broke the thumb on his throwing hand in the fourth quarter and wouldn’t return until Week 7. Nothing about that game suggested that Dallas would close out the regular season 12-5 before heading out on the road to re-engage with a Bucs team that limped out of the league’s weakest division with an 8-9 record and a negative-45 point differential. But here we are.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ refusal to dwell in the past has in some ways been mirrored by the NFL. Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the league to award the Dallas-Tampa Wild Card to ESPN and its broadcast sibling, ABC. Under former ESPN capo John Skipper, the NFL’s relationship with Disney was strained at best; since Jimmy Pitaro was appointed chairman of the sports division in October 2020, the partnership between the league and Bristol has been all bumblebees and lollipops. The rehabilitation efforts have been so successful that the NFL granted ESPN/ABC what amounts to a sure-fire ratings draw, which will go a long way toward helping Disney claw back some of the ad revenue it lost in the wake of the canceled Bills-Bengals Monday Night Football telecast on Jan 2.

For all the chatter of turning the page and looking ahead, you can’t talk about a 45-year-old quarterback without surveying a few decades’ worth of statistics. For starters, Brady has amassed an eye-goggling 35-12 (0.745) playoff record, including his recent 5-1 run in Tampa. As a franchise, Dallas has earned the same number of playoff wins over the last 63 years, against 29 losses.

In the here and now, Dallas’ fearsome defense seems to lose a step on grass, as the Cowboys this season are just 1-4 on natural turf. (Raymond James Stadium is kitted out with a lush carpet of Bermuda grass.) Prescott, since returning from his Week 1 injury, has tended to force passes, which has led to 15 picks. Despite having missed those five early games, Prescott tied Houston’s Davis Mills for the dubious distinction of throwing the most interceptions in 2022. Brady had nine.

In an off year for both QBs, Prescott enjoyed a slight edge in passer rating, averaging a 91.1 to Brady’s 90.7. Mike McCarthy’s offense was far more multidimensional in 2022; despite generating similar overall mileage (the Cowboys averaged 365.3 yards per game to the Bucs’ 356.1), Dallas boasted the NFL’s eighth-highest average in rushing yards (135.2 per game) while Tampa finished last with 76.9.

Of course, the concerns of mortal men don’t seem to occupy a ton of space in Brady’s skull. Monday night’s game marks the first time in his career that he’ll be a home underdog in the postseason. He’s also only lost two Wild Card starts—a 33-14 beatdown care of the ferocious Ravens’ D in 2010 and a 20-13 stunner against the Titans in 2020 that marked his swan song in New England. Seen in a charitable light, this would suggest that Brady isn’t likely to botch another Wild Card game until 2030.

That isn’t to say Tom Brady will be beating the hell out of Microsoft Surface tablets and doing the confetti dance when he’s 55, but it doesn’t mean you should summarily dismiss such flights of fancy, either. Feasting on the hopes of far younger men, eating weird food and never calling it quits is what makes Brady Brady; at this point, he’s basically just Football Dracula, only he can see himself in a mirror.

Bet against the man at your peril, is the thing, even if the Cowboys look to be the better team. It’s been 30 years since Dallas last won a playoff game on the road, and while there’s a lot to be said for Jayron Kearse’s forward-looking philosophy, history has a knack for repeating itself. Thus, one final stat from Our Friends in the Mojave Desert: The last 15 teams that lost a regular-season game to an opponent only to be favored in a subsequent playoff rematch have gone 6-9.

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