TAMPA, Fla. — The Dallas Cowboys finally figured out Tom Brady.
After seven consecutive losses against Brady dating to 2003, the Cowboys demolished the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their future Hall of Fame quarterback, 31-14, while 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 enduring the one of the worst playoff defeats 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 only three games and failing to advance past the divisional round. But Monday’s game was lopsided from the start as Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott completed passes 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 passed for 305 yards. Previously, he had won only one playoff game in seven seasons in Dallas, but on Monday he 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 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, setting a new league record.)
The last time Brady was shut out in the first half of a playoff game was his first postseason appearance, with the Patriots in 2002. The Patriots rallied that day to beat the Raiders in overtime, 16-13.
There was no comeback on Monday. The Buccaneers never established their running game, forcing Brady to throw 23 times in the first half alone. Several of his passes were batted away and at one point he threw to tight end Cameron Brate, who was quadruple-covered in the end zone, in the first quarter.
Brady also overthrew several passes, including one that was intercepted by safety Jayron Kearse in the back of the Dallas end zone at the start of the second quarter.
In the third quarter, after the Cowboys completed an eight-play, 86-yard drive that ended when Prescott found 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. At the end of the play, 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 home 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 left sideline for a 30-yard score. The Buccaneers went for the 2-point conversion, but Brady badly missed Godwin 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 10th.
The game came to a somber stop with under three minutes remaining when Tampa Bay receiver Russell Gage lay 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 of the collapse of Bills safety Damar Hamlin earlier this month. Gage was carted off to a hospital with a concussion and a possible neck injury, but was moving his fingers, Buccaneers Coach Todd Bowles said.
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.
Brady finished with 35 of 66 passing for 351 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
If this was Brady’s last game, it was certainly an anomaly. He owns nearly every major N.F.L. passing record, including yards and touchdowns. This year, he set personal bests for completions and pass attempts as he threw for 4,694 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Brady’s parents came off the field arm-in-arm after the game, and his mother, Galynn, had tears in her eyes. Brady declined to answer questions last week about reports suggesting that he might attempt to add to his career totals by joining a new team next season. On Monday, Brady offered little insight on his future.
“I’m going to go home and get a good night’s sleep,” he said when asked about his plans for next year.
But at the end of his four-minute news conference, he thanked the media, including the Tampa Bay beat writers, as well as the Buccaneers organization, seeming to close his time with the franchise.
News reports have suggested that Brady is interested in playing in South Florida so he can be close to his children. Last year, the N.F.L. found that the Dolphins had “impermissible” talks with Brady while he was under contract with the Patriots and Buccaneers.
Dolphins General Manager Chris Grier said Monday that the team supports their current quarterback, Tua Tagavailoa, a former first-round draft pick who missed five games this season because of concussions.
The Las Vegas Raiders have been reported as another potential destination for Brady. He has a long history with Raiders Coach Josh McDaniels, who was his offensive coordinator in New England for 13 seasons.
With seven Super Bowl titles, three M.V.P. awards and nearly 300 wins, Brady is unlikely to be happy leaving the field after such a drubbing against the Cowboys. Where, and if, he tries to erase the memory is yet to be determined.
“You always want to end every year great, but unfortunately sports doesn’t work that way,” Brady said.