Buccaneers dominated by Cowboys; what’s next for Tom Brady?

TAMPA, Fla. — Is this how Tom Brady’s time in Tampa Bay comes to an end?

The Buccaneers were dominated Monday night, losing 31-14 to the Cowboys in what ends up the second-most lopsided playoff loss in Brady’s 23-year career, and his first-ever loss in eight games against Dallas.

Dak Prescott threw for four touchdowns and ran for a fifth, and the Cowboys secured the first red-zone interception in Brady’s three seasons with the Bucs. The Cowboys, relishing their first playoff win in four years, advance to play Sunday at San Francisco in the divisional round. Prescott’s passer rating of 143.3 is the third-best ever in a playoff game with 30-plus pass attempts.

The Bucs had struggled to an 8-9 record, the worst of any team Brady has started for, but they had the consolation of a division title and a home game against a Cowboys team they beat 19-3 in Week 1. That might have been the Bucs’ best game this season, but Monday night was one of their worst, on both sides of the ball.

Brady, 45, is a free agent this spring and now has three options: retire (as he did briefly last year), return to the Bucs and hope for better success or sign with a new team and start a third chapter in his NFL career. He’s said he’ll take his time before making any decision, having changed direction last year and unretired just 40 days after deciding to call it quits. He’s endured a difficult season on and off the field, with the team’s struggles in the standings coming as he went through a divorce with his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

The persistent offensive struggles this season — averaging 12 fewer points per game than a year ago — put Byron Leftwich’s future as offensive coordinator up in the air, whether Brady returns or not. Head coach Todd Bowles is expected back for 2023, as the Bucs still won back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history, and the Glazer family has never fired a coach after only one season.

Dallas set a very strong tone in the first half, leading 18-0 on three long touchdown drives, covering 80, 80 and 91 yards. About the only thing going wrong for the Cowboys was kicker Brett Maher, who missed all three extra points, this after going 50-for-53 in the regular season. Maher would miss a fourth extra point in the third quarter, so his future with the team is in jeopardy.

The two teams opened the game with four three-and-out series, then Dallas found its rhythm, with Prescott throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz. The Bucs answered with a long drive, but on second-and-goal from the Dallas 5, Brady threw a pass to the back of the end zone that was intercepted by Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse — Brady’s first red-zone INT in three full seasons with the Bucs.

The Cowboys answered with another 80-yard touchdown drive — going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Dallas called a bootleg for Prescott, who ran in untouched for an easy score. They added another score just before halftime, Prescott again hitting Schultz for an 11-yard score. Dallas outgained the Bucs 246-120 in the first half.

Tampa Bay went into the game with optimism, getting injured players back on both sides of the ball to make them as healthy a team as they’ve been all season. Center Ryan Jensen, out since July with a knee injury, returned and made his season debut, but his presence couldn’t wake up a struggling offense, and he landed a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness.

Brady had totaled 125 yards on 33 passes before the offense found itself late in the third quarter. Brady went 7-for-9 for 92 yards on the drive, hitting Julio Jones for a 30-yard touchdown as the third quarter ended. Another Dallas touchdown in the fourth quarter padded the margin to 31-6 before Brady and the Bucs drove down the field for a late touchdown drive. This is the second-most lopsided playoff loss of Brady’s career — his Patriots lost to the Ravens by 19, 33-14, in 2009.

Bucs receiver Russell Gage had to be carted off the field after taking a hit high that bent his neck in the final minutes.

Brady is the biggest question mark, but who else might be playing their final game in a Bucs uniform? Tampa Bay has 20-plus free agents, including linebacker and team captain Lavonte David, and additional cuts might have to be made due to salary-cap issues.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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