Facing Tom Brady, Buccaneers and decades of playoff futility, the Cowboys have multiple dragons to slay

FRISCO, Texas — DeMarcus Lawrence paused.

Two seconds, four seconds, then six seconds elapsed.

A moment of suspense ensued: Would the Dallas Cowboys defensive end with a track record for spouting bulletin board material risk tempting seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady?

“We know how good Brady is,” Lawrence instead said. “Not worrying about all the things that he can do. … Just worry about us and get our jobs done.”

The pattern was clear throughout the Cowboys’ locker room this week ahead of their wild-card playoff visit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Acknowledge the dragon. Aim to slay it. Don’t oversell it.

In seven contests against Brady, the Cowboys have never prevailed.

Twenty-eight teams have beaten Brady. Two more have hired him. Only the Cowboys (0-7) and the Vikings (0-6) have never won because of him.

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And the bulk of this season’s Cowboys roster, opening each of the past two seasons against the Buccaneers, are acutely aware of how the 45-year-old great can finish a game, neutralize an opponent’s weaknesses and bait mistakes.

So despite the Cowboys’ four-game record advantage that no doubt contributes to their 2.5-point favorite status, per BetMGM, the Cowboys face either a challenge or an opportunity upon arrival in Tampa for an 8:15 p.m. ET Monday matchup. They’ll finally exorcise a demon — or, for an eighth time in franchise history, they will fall short.

“Brady is a factor,” Cowboys team owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “We’re playing Tampa Bay, the team [but] I know it’s there and I respect that.

“It gives us a challenge to do something we haven’t done before — and that’s beat Tom Brady.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady is 7-0 against the Cowboys in his career. Can Dallas finally end the losing skid in Monday's wild-card playoff tilt? (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady is 7-0 against the Cowboys in his career. Can Dallas finally end the losing skid in Monday's wild-card playoff tilt? (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

The truth about this matchup

The following three premises can coexist: The Cowboys seek predominantly to advance past the wild-card round, win a playoff game for the first time since the 2018 season, and win a road playoff game since (writer checks notes to revisit a date before she was born) the 1992 season.

The Cowboys will play a Buccaneers team with 48 active-roster players, all of whom can wreck Dallas’ chances.

And if the Cowboys secure a thus-elusive franchise win over one of the best NFL players of all time, this victory will bring extra juice. Perhaps such momentum can propel a Cowboys postseason run.

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Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy emphasized that his roster has “zero responsibility” for the franchise’s first five losses, adding that 2021 and 2022 matchups can serve as acutely helpful teaching tape.

But he knows, also, that Brady’s playoff reputation precedes him. So why not lean in a little bit?

“You have to embrace these opportunities,” McCarthy said. “Clearly, one of the most decorated players of our generation and maybe in the history of the National Football League, so that speaks to what he has accomplished.

“I know as competitors, we're all excited about this opportunity to compete against Tom.”

The Cowboys may need to exceed their regular-season formula to triumph.

Cowboys keys to disrupting Brady

What exactly must the Cowboys show the Buccaneers to advance past the wild-card round and eliminate a quarterback who has led 35 postseason wins?

On defense, players must elevate their mental game to anticipate and respond quickly. Attacking the interior of the pocket to disrupt quarterback-receiver timing is likely to prove more effective than attempting to rush from around the end.

Why? Brady’s 2.45-second average release time is the quickest in the NFL. Unless he’s immediately disrupted, the ball may be gone.

“He’s executing at light speed, almost,” said Cowboys defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa, who will be among those charged with disrupting Brady’s pocket. “So you’ve got to be able to line up, get the call, and make sure your mind is moving quickly executing at a high level.”

The Cowboys' defense has threatened this season even as their effectiveness has dipped of late. But Dallas’ two major strengths — its pass-rush finish and takeaways — don’t portend well against the Buccaneers’ résumé.

The Cowboys generated a sack on 9.82% of opponents’ pass attempts, second only to the Philadelphia Eagles. Brady, meanwhile, was sacked on a league-low 2.91% of attempts — despite his oft-injured offensive linemen cycling through.

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No team has more takeaways than the Cowboys’ 33. But no quarterback who started every game has fewer fumbles than Brady’s five (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is tied), and only two quarterbacks who attempted at least 120 passes this season threw interceptions less frequently than Brady’s 1.2% rate.

“Normally, a quarterback may take a moment to go through a progression,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “Instantly knowing where to go, that type of quickness mentally and physically … the decisiveness of where he goes with the ball [is challenging].”

Brady’s favorite two targets benefited, receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans each surpassing 1,000 yards. The Cowboys expect their secondary to be tested after two of their top three cornerbacks suffered season-ending injuries. Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs is expected to anchor the right cornerback slot. But on the left and in the slot, the Cowboys’ options range from rookie DaRon Bland to just-signed veteran Xavier Rhodes, options whom Brady could tempt due to inexperience in the game or with the Cowboys' playbook.

Beware Brady’s chances if he chooses that route.

“If you make mistakes with a guy like that,” Diggs said, “he’s sure to capitalize.”

The Cowboys’ ‘No. 1 goal’

By most accounts, the Cowboys bring a more talented roster to the Monday night contest. They bring a more consistent (though not wholly so) product than Tampa has fielded this season. The Bucs are limping into the playoffs via a series of fourth-quarter and overtime comebacks.

The Cowboys could suffer an upset from that formula. They know no game is ever over against Brady, McCarthy praising his two-minute drill discipline and downfield perimeter ball placement, while Dallas safety Jayron Kearse explained how Brady has consistently “done a great job of owning the moment” in clutch situations.

A loss for Dallas would jeopardize the successful aura of the Cowboys’ second straight 12-win season, further underscoring theories that the Cowboys under Jerry Jones cannot generate postseason momentum. McCarthy and quarterback Dak Prescott, too, could expect scrutiny. Too often in the past quarter century has Dallas qualified for the playoffs only to falter in the biggest moments.

The defensive challenge is steep, Quinn reminding players that the volume of the Buccaneers' playbook is high and the plays they’re likely to see out of identical formations could muddy their diagnoses. Exercising caution for the trickery, while diagnosing speedily for a quarterback who will likely process even more quickly, is a balancing act defenders will need to perfect.

Oh, and while they’re at it, remember that this game is bigger than just beating Brady.

Or is it?

“Brady just happens to be the quarterback,” Kearse said. “How bad do I want to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? I want to beat them extremely bad. I want to beat them extremely bad. I want to win.

“That’s the No. 1 goal: I don’t care how it happens, I just want to win the wild-card game.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein