Throughout the NFL postseason I’ll break down key games and give out at least bet I like for the matchup.

Here’s a dive into the wild card showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Cowboys vs Buccaneers Spread, current line:

Cowboys vs Buccaneers Best Bet Prediction:

Tampa Bay is getting healthy just in time for the playoffs, which is leading me to take the Bucs against the spread at +2.5 points versus the Cowboys. 

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When Cowboys are on Offense

In the Week 1 meeting between these teams, Dak Prescott was a mess and the Cowboys put just three points on the scoreboard. 

It’s hard to pin down why Prescott struggled against Tampa. The Bucs defense did pressure Prescott at a 39% pressure rate, the third highest rate he faced this year. However, Prescott also averaged a season-low 3.9 yards per attempt on 19 passes on which he was not pressured, per TruMedia. 

It’s also worth noting the Bucs high rate of two-high coverages in that first meeting. Their 65% rate was one of just five games in which Prescott saw two-high coverage on at least half his dropbacks 一 another was his Week 18 dud against the Washington Commanders. 

The most significant impact two-high coverage has on the Dallas offense is limiting the deep ball. 

Take a look at Prescott’s rate of throwing 10 or more yards downfield, per TruMedia:

  • 38% versus single-high coverage
  • 29% versus two-high coverage

Bucs safeties Logan Ryan and Mike Edwards, both of whom have been banged up this year and did not play Week 18 are expected to return. This will significantly increase the odds of Tampa leaning heavily on two-high coverages:

  • 56% two-high rate with Ryan and Edwards on field
  • 36% two-high rate with Ryan and/or Edwards off field

One of the Bucs strengths on defense is their ability to generate early contact in the run game. 

Tampa contacts ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage on 49% of attempts, the league’s fifth highest rate. Over the last five weeks, that rate has climbed to 54%, the second highest rate in that span. 

This trend likely means Ezekiel Elliott will see more action than Tony Pollard, in an effort to avoid negative plays.  

When contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage, Elliot was stuffed for zero or negative yards on just 28% of his carries, the league’s lowest rate per TruMedia. Pollard, however, was stuffed on 44% of his attempts, which ranked 34th out of 42 qualifiers. 

When Buccaneers are on Offense

The Buccaneers are starting to get healthy along the offensive line, as both Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith practiced on Thursday. 

Although Tampa’s run game has been suspect regardless of the offensive line formation, the passing offense has been dramatically better with Wirfs and Smith on the field, based on this data from TruMedia: 

Wirfs/Smith StatusPass EPARun EPA
with Wirfs/Smith49.7-19.2
w/out Wirfs and/or Smith-21.7-24.7

The improving health of the offensive line, coupled with Brady’s tendency to get rid of the ball quickly could cause issues for the Cowboys defense. 

According to TruMedia, Brady releases the ball in 2.5 seconds or less on 68% of his dropbacks 一 and is pressured on just 10.6% of those quick dropbacks, the league’s fourth lowest rate. 

Although Dallas excels at generating pressure, Brady is among the most difficult quarterbacks to pressure for this reason. 

When quarterbacks get rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less and Dallas fails to generate pressure, the Cowboys rank 26th with 7.1 yards per attempt allowed.

Based on these trends, it’s worth sharing some key stats from the Week 1 meeting, via TruMedia:

  • Brady released 41% of his passes in two seconds or less, his fourth highest rate
  • When Brady held the ball for at least seconds, he was pressured on nine of his 18 dropbacks (50%), his highest rate 

It appears Brady knew his release had to be quicker than usual against Dallas, and he was correct. It’s also worth noting both Wirfs and Smith were active in that matchup, but Smith played just 23 snaps 一 Brady was pressured on three of his 10 dropbacks with Smith on the field. 

In the run game, we should expect an increased workload for Leonard Fournette 一 his lack of work late in the season was likely due to an effort to keep him fresh. 

As we can see from the run-game splits with and without Wirfs and Smith, their health likely plays no role in the run game. For further evidence, take a look at these yards before contact numbers from TruMedia:

  • 1.0 yards before contact per attempt with Smith/Wirfs
  • 1.4 yards before contact per attempt without Smith and/or Wirfs

In total, Bucs running backs average 1.2 yards before contact per attempt, which ranks 26th. 

The Dallas defense ranks 15th in yards before contact allowed (1.4 yards per attempt). 

These trends are problematic for Fournette, who requires running lanes to do damage at this stage of his career. 

Per TruMedia, when Fournette is contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage, he averages just 1.02 yards per attempt, which ranks 36th out of 42 ball carriers. Rachaad White is even worse, ranking 39th. 

Final Thoughts on Cowboys vs Buccaneers Best Bets

The Cowboys were the better team throughout most of the season, but the Bucs appear to be getting healthy on both sides of the ball at just the right time. 

With a healthy secondary, Tampa should be able to limit Prescott as it did in Week 1 and pull off the upset.

In my player props article, Best Over/Under NFL Player Prop Bets For Wild Card Round, I also recommended taking the over on Brady’s passing yards at 274.5 yards.

Although this should be a close game, I’m going to take the Bucs against the spread at +2.5.

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