FOX Sports Insider
Sometimes it is hard to work out whether sports fans have a short memory or a really, really long one. Or, when it comes to talking about and thinking about Tom Brady, Dak Prescott and Monday’s blockbuster wild-card showdown, maybe both.
If football was linear there would be no fathomable reason why Tampa Bay/Dallas at Raymond James Stadium would be a pick ‘em in so many minds.
If, as simplistic thought would dictate, the primary criteria for analyzing a team’s readiness for the playoffs is its overall body of work across the regular season, then this should not be a fight at all, let alone a fair one.
But the only things linear about football are the markings on the field, the postseason is a time when Captain Obvious goes on vacation, and the perception of an 8-9 team playing a 12-5 opponent boils down to a couple of key things.
Football fans are conditioned, either through awe-struck observation or by having their team’s heart broken by him too often, to trust Tom Brady. Similarly — and Cowboys fans will seethe as this suggestion but also know it’s true — they’re primed to distrust Dallas, especially when it’s the postseason, especially when they’re on the road.
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Brady and the Bucs could so easily not have been here, after a season filled with struggle, and enough narrow escapes that honestly demands even an 8-9 mark should be considered somewhat flattering. However, the champ from two years ago has an unmistakable gust of momentum behind it, which is where the short-term memory piece comes in.
It took just a glimmer of the old Brady to bring back belief. When he slung three touchdown passes to Mike Evans to lead a stirring comeback against the Carolina Panthers, in what was effectively the NFC South decider in Week 17, it didn’t feel out of place, even after all those weeks (months?) when he admitted he was not performing as he’d have liked.
What is muscle memory for Brady is mental memory for the rest of us. A few eye-catching throws and our mind takes us back to a familiar spot, one where we expect Brady to win. Never has there been a more popularly predicted sub-.500 team going into the postseason, with many tipping a strong Tampa Bay run, evidence-backed by their Week 1 win over the Cowboys and the thinking that they could match up well with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“He has seen every defense,” Tampa Bay safety Logan Ryan told reporters of Brady. “He did this 20 years ago as a [young] quarterback winning the Super Bowl. His preparation is his life experience. It is his life. He’s good in those moments because he’s good every day. If it is best-out-of-one, in football, I’ll take Tom Brady to be the quarterback.”
For the Cowboys there is a differing sense, one that suggests the moment has passed. They need to find a new one, and quickly, or else another opportunity, another campaign, just blows on by.
There wasn’t much to like about Dallas’ final five performances of the year, and Prescott became mightily interception-prone down the stretch, lifting his tally to a league high-tying 15 on the season.
Much of the positivity of October and November, and even the early weeks, when Cooper Rush subbed in for Prescott during his injury layoff and did admirably, has now been washed away.
If Dallas does turn things around and progress through to the next round, some extra satisfaction would be due, and the feat will have been accomplished in the pace of widespread prognostications of collapse.
“Dak does not have a legacy,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on “First Things First.” “Certain guys don’t have legacies. He can start to build one, theoretically, this postseason. But, right now, in the regular season and the playoffs, he is Kirk Cousins with mattress commercials.”
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Prescott, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and head coach Mike McCarthy come in with some legitimate pressure. Another postseason flameout would see blame fall heavily on the shoulders of all three.
Even now, it is stunning how quickly the narrative on the Cowboys shifted. The defense remains resolute and capable of big plays. Prescott’s targets, particularly CeeDee Lamb, are truly elite.
But Dallas looks uncertain, and Prescott will need to improve his recent form to have a chance at avoiding seeing his career postseason record drop to 1-4. Maybe it is just a temporary blip, brought about by the Cowboys coasting to the finish line after they wrapped up a playoff place. Maybe it is the stain of recent history clouding the picture. Or maybe the doubts are well-founded.
How can it be that we are even talking about such things? Why is it that, after one of the best seasons in recent memory, the Cowboys are heading into the postseason carrying a sense of gloom?
And when was the last time two teams with a four-win differential met in the wild-card round, but it was the one with the poorer record that skips into the New Year, while the other seems to have everything, suddenly, against it?
Hmm … can’t remember.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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