The Rams (13-3) are in the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2004 and will face the No. 4 seed Dallas Cowboys (11-6) coming off a first-round bye.
These two storied franchises will meet for the ninth time in the postseason — which is the most in NFL history between two teams.
The Rams met many of the high expectations for the club’s second season under head coach Sean McVay, becoming the first Rams team to record a 13-win season since 2001, sweep the NFC West since the NFL’s realignment in 2002, and win back-to-back division titles since 1978 and 1979.
The Cowboys enter the Divisional round for the third time in five seasons — all under head coach Jason Garrett. Garrett’s Cowboys have won eight of their last 10, including last week’s win in the Wild Card round against the Seahawks.
The Rams and Cowboys met in the dawn of the McVay era, Week 4 of last season, but that was eons ago in the week-to-week league that is the NFL. The Cowboys are looking to down the NFC West’s world beaters for much of 2018. The Rams are in search of their first playoff win since beating the Seahawks on Jan. 8, 2005 in the Wild Card round. The winner of Saturday night’s game will be a win away from Super Bowl LIII.
"All right, Dallas Cowboys,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said midweek. “I have somewhat of a past of Dallas. Jason Garrett has done a tremendous job there. He's a better head coach than I was and done better. They've got a really good football team, so we know that.”
Phillips, who coached the Cowboys from 2007 through midseason of 2010, was equally frank about the challenge Garrett’s offense presents on Wednesday.
“They've got, obviously, a great running back — the leading rusher in the league,” Phillips said. “The quarterback is a really good quarterback and they've added a receiver who is the top receiver probably … since he's been there.”
Third-year quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott provide the bulk of the offense for the Cowboys. Prescott finished his season with a career-high 3,885 passing yards along with 22 touchdowns — one shy of matching his career mark. Elliott led the league in carries, total yards, and yards per game in 2018 — edging out running back Todd Gurley by fewer than three yards per game on average.
As for dealing with ‘Dak’...
“I know he ain’t Russell Wilson for what he can do running around and just being so creative,” cornerback Marcus Peters said this week. “I think moreso, he’s just a running back when he gets the ball because he is bigger and just not going to put his head down and run away from contact.”
“He can keep plays alive, he’s gritty — I like how he gets after it — he never gets too high, never gets too low,” safety John Johnson said. “He can win a game for you, so that’s something we just really need to put pressure on him, move him off his spot, and I think we’ll be alright.”
“He’s a good quarterback, makes a lot of big plays,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “Tough quarterback, but we’ll get after him.”
The Rams defense — and specifically Donald — may have an upper hand if they are able to contain the young quarterback, as Prescott is the league’s No. 2 most-sacked quarterback in 2018.
If it’s not Prescott running about the Coliseum’s turf, it’ll be Elliott — and the Rams have had trouble against the run this season. The sore spot in Phillips’ evolving defense let up 273 yards rushing to the Seahawks in Week 10, 194 to the Bears in a loss, 190 to the Seahawks in Week 5, and 141 to the Saints in a loss.
Stopping ‘Zeke’ has certainly been a point of emphasis for the Rams since it became clear the Cowboys were headed to L.A. for the Divisional round.
“It's a big challenge to stop their running game, especially him,” Phillips said after defending his team’s ability to create takeaways and come up with critical stops and wins in the less-than-perfect season against the run. “But, all our guys know that, so that's a challenge. We've challenged our guys with, 'Hey, we can't let him run the ball or certainly run wild on us.”
Joining Dak and Zeke as the cornerstones of Dallas’ offense is wide receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper’s been targeted a whopping 73 times since joining the club in Week 9. The veteran has caught 53 of those passes, and six for a touchdown. In his first playoff game since 2016, Cooper finished with 106 yards receiving, averaging 15 yards per reception last week against Seattle.
Peters, Phillips, and cornerback Aqib Talib have experience defending the wideout as former members of the AFC West. Talib said not much has changed since Cooper’s days as a Raider — except maybe that Prescott looks to his No. 1 receiver more often.
“He’s one of the top guys, man, he’s one of the top guys,” Talib said. “He’s fast, he’s quick, he catches the ball downfield, high-points the football, good yards after the catch, so he’s got the total package.”
Check out photos of the Rams taking on the Cowboys throughout the years.
While the Cowboys offense has improved as the season has grown late, quarterback Jared Goff and his offense will have to beat a defense that’s No. 6 in points allowed (20.3 per game) and No. 5 in rushing yards allowed (94.6 per game).
“They're a great defense and extremely well-coached,” McVay said after learning his next opponent. “Really sound. Similar to kind of what we said about Chicago, you earn every single yard against great defenses like this and that's exactly what this defense presents."
The Cowboys defense is strongest at the linebacker spot. Linebackers
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith combine for a mammoth 262 tackles in 2018. The Cowboys’ 20 takeaways rank No. 16 across the league, with Vander Esch and Smith accounting for four of them.
The Cowboys defense has limited opposing offenses to 80 yards rushing or fewer in nine games this season. And that’s including last week’s Wild Card game, when the Cowboys held the league’s top rushing team to just 73 yards on the ground.
Gurley has been limited in practice leading up to Saturday’s game, but McVay insists the back is expected to go against the stout run defense after missing Weeks 16 and 17. The head coach also said to expect some combination of the league’s top touchdown scorer and running back C.J. Anderson — who is two-for-two rushing for at least 130 yards with Gurley nursing his knee injury since joining the Rams.
"It's been a process like over the couple weeks,” Gurley said with potential gameday action in mind. “But, the last week has been really good for me.”
And if Gurley can’t go, or needs some wind in his first game since Week 15 against the Eagles, Anderson’s ready to roll with some serious playoff experience, saying, “The whole goal is when ‘30’ is out, we don’t want to miss a beat.”
As for facing one of the league’s top run defenses, Gurley seems optimistic.
“Teams give up 200 yards one game and the next game, hold a guy to 30 yards,” Gurley said. “But, [run game coordinator] coach [Aaron Kromer] 'Krom,' coach McVay got a great gameplan. Got the five best linemen in the world, so I have confidence in them and myself. We're just going to go out there and give it our all."
The Rams’ best effort against the Cowboys defense will require a formidable showing from Goff, while avoiding the pass rush of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and his 10.5 sacks this season. Goff will have the playoff opportunity to fully shed any questions surrounding the tail end of his third professional season, following a Week 13, 14, and 15 funk that resulted in just one touchdown with six interceptions.
Days before delivering to his regular cast of wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Josh Reynolds in his now expanded role, Goff was asked if playoff wins mean something to a quarterback’s legacy.
"Of course,” Goff said. “Guys that win in the playoffs and win late in the playoffs and do good things in December and January, are usually the ones that are remembered."
The Rams and Cowboys kick off from L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Saturday at 5:15 p.m. PST. Here’s how you can tune in.
In case you missed it for the Divisional round: