We’ve seen more explosive playoff passing performances. There have been more efficient passing outputs in the playoffs. Quarterbacks have put their bodies on the line for the team’s greater good. Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes’ battle in the Divisional Round last season is a good example.
But on Monday Night Football against the league’s greatest quarterback ever, Dak Prescott played a game that could help change the narrative surrounding his NFL standing.
He was nearly perfect, and the Dallas Cowboys will be difficult to beat if he remains on this heater. The Cowboys’ offense asks a lot of Prescott. Much of their success this season has come on the back of Prescott making big throws on third downs to move the chains.
But in 30 offensive series against the Buccaneers, the Cowboys only saw 13 third downs, converting seven of the 13. And for the first time in a long time, Prescott used his legs to add yet another element to the offense.
Dak Prescott’s Heroic Night Should Not Go Unnoticed
Much was made of the Cowboys’ 1-4 record on grass fields. Prescott made sure to get his jersey dirty against the Buccaneers. Nobody will mistake him for Justin Fields or Jalen Hurts, but Prescott can still get on the hoof situationally. Kellen Moore does a nice job using Prescott’s legs in the option game in high-leverage situations. But in the one-and-done bracket format of the NFL playoffs, Prescott was more than willing to put his body on the line on the ground.
According to Next Gen Stats, Prescott posted a season-high passing score of 94. Since 2021, his six games of over 90 are second-most only to Patrick Mahomes. And like always, Prescott didn’t shy away from standing in the pocket to take hits while delivering intermediate passes. He completed seven of eight passes of more than 15 air yards, and each of his four touchdown passes came with over 10 air yards. It’s where Prescott thrives as a passer.
But we’ve seen Prescott do this before, to an extent. We all remember his somersault against the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card Round in 2018. And we saw ridiculous passing efficiency against Aaron Rodgers as a rookie in a playoff game the Cowboys lost.
But the Buccaneers’ performance felt like a turning of the page. Prescott’s game commands respect, and maybe now he’ll start receiving that due respect.
The Dak Prescott Litmus Test
Anybody who ventures outside of network television for NFL analysis already knows Prescott is one of the best in the game. He’s not Mahomes, Josh Allen, or Justin Herbert. Prescott was a fourth-rounder with a decent but not outstanding arm. At one point, he had decent mobility, but his horrific ankle injury zapped much of the explosiveness he had on the ground.
But folks who sit down and objectively evaluate quarterback play agree that Prescott is one of, if not the most cerebral passers in the league. All offenses are timing-based. However, many offenses, like the Cowboys’ next opponent, find ways to get wide receivers running naked over the middle of the field and in space on the outside.
The Cowboys’ scheme consistently forces Prescott to drive passes into impossibly tight windows, thanks to a lack of speed to occupy safeties. Additionally, Dallas rarely leaks their backs over the middle to get linebackers creeping forward. The offense wants to attack the middle, but they let linebackers and safeties pinch passes.
Prescott prevails as one of the most productive passers in the league despite lacking the elite physical tools of the league’s elite passers. And like a three-point shooter in an insane rhythm, when Prescott goes unconscious like he did against Tampa Bay, nothing aside from penalties can stop the Cowboys’ offense. It’s the prettiest pure “quarterbacking” in the league. It’s also what gets him into trouble and why he led the league in interceptions this season.
And the Cowboys’ game plan against Tampa Bay could also indicate how they can take advantage of a stout 49ers defense.
Beating the San Francisco 49ers
Prescott and the Cowboys hadn’t had much luck in the playoffs from a wins and losses perspective. However, until last season’s performance against the 49ers in the Wild Card Round, Prescott had produced well individually.
San Francisco gave Prescott one of the most thorough beatings of his career, including the Chaz Green game in Atlanta that temporarily broke Prescott. His -0.24 EPA per play and -9.5% CPOE were among the worst of his career against the 49ers. So, how can Dallas avoid the same fate in the Divisional Round?
First, they’ll need to be aggressive. The 49ers don’t really have a defensive weakness. They dominate against the run and pass. But the strength of their defense is their front four and the middle of their defense in general.
Prescott and the Cowboys like to base their offensive attack from the inside out, but they didn’t attack the middle of the Buccaneers’ defense the way we’re used to seeing. Prescott only attempted two passes over the intermediate middle, which makes sense, given that Lavonte David is one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL.
Fred Warner is even better. And so is the 49ers’ defense.
However, they do play a similar style to Tampa Bay. They play coverage, try to win with four rushers, and keep things in front of them. Moore and the Cowboys did a great job giving Prescott underneath options to hit when the protection broke down, or the Buccaneers’ coverage did their job downfield. Prescott and Cowboys receivers picked apart Tampa Bay’s zone coverage, and they’ll need to do the same against the 49ers if they want to consistently move the ball against the best defense in football.
But if Prescott remains as locked in against San Francisco as he was against Tampa Bay, Mike McCarthy could find himself gliding to another Super Bowl appearance on the back of a quarterback on an absolute heater.