Written by: Greg Lehr
Previous Matchups: The first preseason game of each year is usually just a quick splash of excitement to welcome NFL fans back for a new year, and then mostly uninspiring play due to starters resting and vanilla gameplans. However, when these two teams squared off against one another in Week 1 of the 2016 preseason, the Rams were celebrating their homecoming to Los Angeles and both (now-starting) quarterbacks for these teams were making their rookie debuts. Jared Goff, the first overall pick of the NFL Draft that year, entered the game for Case Keenum in the second quarter, completing 4/9 passes for 38 yards and an interception in limited action. Dak Prescott, Dallas’ 4th-round pick that year, embraced his chance to start the game with Tony Romo sitting out as the established veteran starter and backup Kellen Moore breaking his ankle in training camp. Prescott made a splash from the start and finished 10/12 for 139 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Fast forward to Week 4 of the 2017 regular season, with Goff and Prescott settled in as the established starters and Sean McVay in his first season as head coach in LA. Although Dallas jumped out to an early lead, the Rams stormed back behind Gurley’s 215 total yards, capped off by a go-ahead 53-yard reception in the fourth quarter. Rams’ kicker Greg Zuerlein also played a significant role with a career-high seven field goals. Goff (255 yds, 2 TD) and Prescott (252 yds, 3 TD, INT) each turned in solid games. Version three of Goff/Gurley vs. Prescott/Elliott should bring a load of excitement and fireworks in this weekend’s divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
Offense: The Cowboys’ offense has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for much of the season, but the once highly-criticized trade for Amari Cooper has proven to be a season-saver for Dallas, who were 3-5 at the time of the deal but has since won eight of nine. Cooper added much-needed stability and explosiveness for Dak Prescott, giving him (and the offense) a legitimate threat outside the numbers that could fill the role of a true number one receiver. This has helped open things up underneath for Ezekiel Elliott, who finished the year as the NFL’s leading rusher for the second time in three years (1,434 yards). Elliott’s importance to the offense cannot be overstated, as he also led the team with 77 catches out of the backfield (good for 567 yards), helping him eclipse 2,000 total yards for the season. It’s no secret the Cowboys go as Zeke goes, but don’t forget about clutch play of Prescott throughout the year, particularly the second half. Despite his lower overall numbers, Dak led five game-winning drives this year, second only to Drew Brees. Dallas will still look to maintain their run-first identity this week to keep the ball away from the high-flying Rams offense.
Sean McVay’s offense has been nothing short of exciting this year, as the Rams finished ranked second in both total offense (420.1 ypg) and scoring offense (32.1 ppg). Todd Gurley was once again a touchdown machine, finishing the season with 21 total TDs and 1,831 yards from scrimmage in just 14 games. Gurley is expected to be good to go against Dallas after battling inflammation in his left knee for the last couple weeks, providing a significant challenge to Dallas with fresh legs. This is great news for Jared Goff, who has cooled off quite a bit after his scorching first half of the season, especially after losing Cooper Kupp midway through the year. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods remain dangerous on the outside, and they must be ready to roll after seeing Seahawks’ receiver Tyler Lockett get free down the field multiple times against the Dallas secondary in the Wild Card round.
While the Cowboys’ offense has found a way to do just enough down the stretch time and time again, the Rams are simply on another level. Whether watching games live or looking at the stat sheets, it’s easy to see that LA plays with much more pace, rhythm, and overall efficiency in McVay’s more modern offensive system. The ability to spread the ball out to multiple weapons is a big advantage in comparison to the Cowboys, who rely very heavily on Dak, Zeke, and Cooper to make things happen.
Defense: This is the side of the ball that has carried Dallas all season, even before their mid-season revival. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have stormed into the spotlight of the NFL’s 7th-ranked unit. Their elite instincts, athleticism, and pursuit of the ball perfectly embodies the strengths of Dallas’ defense as a whole, and it’s exactly what a defense must possess in order to counter the Rams’ explosive offense that attacks defenses at all three levels. Also, be sure to keep an eye on Demarcus Lawrence, who led the league in games of at least three or more pressures (14/16 games), according to PFF.
LA’s defense has big-time names sprinkled all over the field, but DC Wade Phillips has struggled to get consistent production out of this unit over the course of this season. The exception, of course, is Aaron Donald, who’s once again the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year honors following his NFL-leading 20.5 sacks in 2018. The big picture, however, is that the Rams’ defense ranks 19th overall and just 23rd against the run, so they will have their hands full when the league’s leading rusher comes to town Saturday night. Donald and Co. must find ways to get to Dak to the ground, as only DeShaun Watson was sacked more this season.
While LA boasted most of the names at the start of the season, many Cowboys defensive players have made a name for themselves throughout the year. Smith, Vander Esch, Randy Gregory, and Byron Jones have all enjoyed breakout campaigns in 2018 and are a big reason why Dallas gives up just 20.3 ppg (6th-best in the NFL). The Rams’ offense vs the Cowboys’ defense should be the best matchup of the game.
Special Teams: Brett Maher has had an up-and-down year in his first season as the Cowboys’ kicker (29/36 FG) and Chris Jones is serviceable, but the Rams boast some of the best at their respective positions in Greg Zuerlein (27/31 FG in 11 games) and Johnny Hekker. In the return game, Tavon Austin will play in LA for the first time since being traded to Dallas during last offseason. He is coming off his best game a week ago, when he had a long punt return of 51 yards and had an even longer punt return (TD) called back.
Coaching: There is no denying the brilliance of McVay’s offensive mind and overall attention to detail. With that said, it is still just his second season and he has yet to grab his first playoff win as head coach. Although Jason Garrett only has two playoff wins to his own name, with one of them coming last weekend, he’s turned in three straight winning seasons (and two division titles) in Prescott’s first three years in the league. Both McVay and Garrett have excellent defensive minds and coaching mentors by their side in Wade Phillips and Rod Marinelli, respectively. Kris Richard has also played a huge role in Dallas’ defensive surge this year after coming over from the Legion of Boom in Seattle, enough to be brought in for multiple head coach interviews within the last week.
Prediction: This game is going to be dictated by two main factors; the ground game and the turnover battle. Both Goff (12 INT) and Prescott (8 INT) struggled at times with ball security, each fumbling 12 times in the regular season. Neither can afford to cost their teams meaningful possessions when the stakes are this high. On the ground, Gurley and Elliott are both elite backs and are leaned on mightily on a weekly basis. This is where the matchups come into play. Dallas is the fifth-ranked defense against the run, and held the Seahawks (who led the league in team rushing this year with 160 ypg) to just 73 yards last week. The Rams give up 122.3 ypg on the ground, playing right into the Cowboys game plan of feeding Zeke early and often in order to control the clock and keep the ball away from the Rams’ high-powered offense. The 2nd-seeded Rams are home and favored by a touchdown, but expectations are that the Cowboys will be very well represented in the stands of the Coliseum on Saturday night. Dallas kept their rhythm going last week and are built to take the Rams out of their usual style of play, making them a true dark horse of the divisional round this weekend.
Cowboys 27, Rams 23