NFL Talking Point: Prescott requires response to career-worst Week 18 against Bucs' playoff master Brady

The Dallas Cowboys headed into Week 18 still in contention for the number one seed in the NFC, but a desperate display from quarterback Dak Prescott saw them instead end the regular season on a bum note.

Although wins for the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers elsewhere meant the Cowboys would have finished as the fifth seed regardless, any optimism and momentum built up over the second half of the season was sapped by a stunning loss to the Washington Commanders.

The Commanders, already eliminated from the playoff race, crushed the Cowboys 26-6, helped by the worst performance of Prescott's career.

His completion percentage of 37.8 (14 of 37) was a career low, as was a yards-per-attempt average of 3.46. Only twice had the QB previously dipped below his Week 18 passer rating of 45.8.

"There's a lot we can learn from and get better and use this tape," said Prescott afterwards, and past experience at least suggests that is likely.

On the previous four occasions Prescott has completed under half of his passes in a game, he has guided Dallas to a win in his next outing. Across those four subsequent games, Prescott has completed 80.7 per cent of his passes for six touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Cowboys have won by 22.3 points on average.

A repeat against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round would represent a significant turnaround from the start of this season, however.

Prior to the Commanders game, Week 1 against the Buccaneers – a 19-3 loss – saw the most recent example of Prescott's pass completion dipping alarmingly, completing 14 of 29 attempts for 48.3 per cent.

On that occasion, a thumb injury ruled him out of the end of the game and then a chunk of the season before he was able to respond on his return.

The Cowboys went 8-2 over Prescott's next 10 starts, with both defeats coming in overtime. Dallas scored 351 points across that period, the highest-scoring 10-game span in team history.

Between Weeks 7 and 17, Prescott's 71.0 per cent pass completion led all QBs with 100 or more attempts. As only Patrick Mahomes (23) topped his 22 TD passes, the two-time Pro Bowler led the way for TD percentage (6.7).

Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott

But the Cowboys remained reluctant to rely too heavily on Prescott, running passing plays only 53.5 per cent of the time over this stretch – the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL.

This reluctance was understandable, too, given the clear warning signs ahead of that Washington game. Even without the ball regularly in his hands, Prescott threatened to derail his team.

His 13 interceptions were also a league high over those 11 weeks, meaning a pick six against the Commanders saw him end the year tied for the lead for picks (15) and pick sixes (three). Prescott played only 12 games to co-leader Davis Mills' 15.

Now, heading into the playoffs, Prescott is on a run of seven straight games with at least one interception. It is the longest such streak of 2022, while only five players have endured worse runs since he entered the league in 2016.

Prescott's careless aggression was already prompting murmurs from Jerry Jones before a Week 18 in which he averaged 10.9 air yards per attempt, up on his season mark of 8.2 air yards per attempt to that point.

He at least retains Jones' support heading into the playoffs, but the Cowboys owner will now want to see some return on a contract that pays Prescott $40million a year – in line with the deal signed by last season's Super Bowl-winning QB Matthew Stafford.

To this point, Prescott's playoff experience is made up of only four games and a single win.

In that regard, he stands at odds with his opponent this week. Tom Brady may have been unconvincing this year, too, with his 25 pickable passes third in the NFL, but he is the master when it comes to the playoffs.

Brady's 13,049 postseason passing yards dwarf not only Prescott's total (1,048) but that of every other playoff QB combined. The 13 other projected starters have a total of 9,184 playoff career passing yards.

The Buccaneers have looked likely to be accommodating postseason opponents for much of this year; they limped to the NFC South title at 8-9 and rank 17th by Stats Perform's efficiency versus expected model, with the 12-5 Cowboys seventh in EVE. There should be a clear favourite in this matchup.

But Brady has spent his entire career delivering in big moments, whereas Prescott crumbled last week.

The Cowboys may only ask their QB not to single-handedly cost them this game, yet Prescott still must prove even that is not beyond him.