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TAMPA — The Dallas Cowboys finally figured out Tom Brady.
After seven consecutive losses against Brady dating back to 2003, the Cowboys demolished the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the future Hall of Fame quarterback, 31-14, dominating nearly every phase of their wild-card matchup Monday night.
The Cowboys will face the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sunday in the divisional round, while Brady will contemplate his future as a 45-year old free agent after suffering the worst playoff defeat of his 23-year career.
For all their bombast and hype, the Cowboys have been dismal in the playoffs for the past quarter century, winning just three games and failing to advance past the divisional round. But Monday’s game was lopsided from the outset as Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw at will to an array of receivers, and running back Tony Pollard sliced through Tampa Bay’s defense for 77 yards on 15 carries.
Prescott finished with five total touchdowns, and threw for 305 yards on 25 of 33 passing.
who had won just one playoff game in seven seasons in Dallas entering this game, seemed determined to vanquish his postseason demons. In the first half, he dove for one first down and scored on a nifty bootleg for the Cowboys’ second score.
That run was bracketed by two touchdown passes to tight end Dalton Schultz in the first half, when the Cowboys took an 18-0 lead into the locker room at Raymond James Stadium. About the only offensive breaks the Buccaneers mustered in the first half came from Brett Maher, the Cowboys kicker, who missed all three extra point attempts, an N.F.L. playoff record. (He later missed a fourth attempt in the second half.)
The last time Brady was shut out in the first half of a playoff game was his first ever postseason appearance with the Patriots in 2002. The Patriots rallied to beat the Raiders in overtime, 16-13.
On Monday, the Buccaneers never established their running game, forcing Brady to throw 23 times in the first half alone. But Brady overthrew several passes, including one to the back of the Dallas end zone that was intercepted by safety Jayron Kearse. Several other Brady passes were batted away.
In the third quarter, after the Cowboys completed an eight-play, 86-yard drive that ended with Prescott hitting Michael Gallup in the end zone for a touchdown, Brady tried to pull the Buccaneers out of a 24-point hole.
Disaster appeared to strike again when receiver Chris Godwin fumbled after a reception on third-and-9 from the Tampa Bay 20-yard line. Brady appeared to try to trip Cowboys safety Malik Hooker, who had recovered the ball.
The fumble was overturned after a review, but Brady could not capitalize. He sailed a third-down pass into empty space to end the fruitless drive, and a smattering of boos rose from the restless crowd.
Brady finally looked like the Brady of old at the end of the third quarter when he hit receiver Julio Jones running full stride down the right sideline for a 30-yard score. The Buccaneers went for the 2-point conversion, but Brady missed Godwin badly in the end zone.
Dallas quickly responded, marching down the field with ease. On fourth-and-4, Cowboys Coach Mike McCarthy, perhaps trying to spare Maher another embarrassment, opted not to kick a field goal. Prescott found receiver CeeDee Lamb wide open for an 18-yard touchdown score. Maher at last converted the extra point attempt to push Dallas’s lead to 31-6.
In his more than two decades in the N.F.L., Brady has led nine fourth-quarter comebacks. But Tampa Bay fell too far behind for Brady to engineer a tenth.
Brady finished with 35 of 66 passing for 351 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
The game came to a somber stop with under three minutes remaining when Tampa Bay receiver Russell Gage remained on the field after a hit that appeared to jolt his neck. Players from both teams knelt as medical personnel attended to Gage, in a moment eerily reminiscent to the collapse of Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin in early January. Gage was carted off to a hospital with a concussion and a neck injury.
When the game resumed, Brady finished the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Brate and converted a 2-point attempt to bring the score to 31-14. The Buccaneers recovered an onside kick near midfield, but the late rally fell short.
If this was Brady’s last game, it was certainly an anomaly. He owns nearly every major passing record, including yards and touchdowns. This year, he set personal bests for completions and pass attempts, throwing for 4,694 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Brady declined to answer questions last week about reports suggesting that he might attempt to add to those totals.