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Rams hit the road for pivotal opportunity against the Cowboys | Game Preview

The longest weeks in the NFL are the ones that follow losses that should have been wins.

There's no other way to view last Sunday's defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh than one that got away. And unfortunately for the Los Angeles Rams, it could prove costly in the context of the 2023 season.


With two road trips before the bye, both against NFC opponents, both against franchises and rosters that expect to contend, there's an immediate opportunity for redemption.

However, this week is not last week. Whereas the Rams were well on their way to pounding Pittsburgh with a deliberate, methodical, patient game plan – until their self-inflicted mistakes sparked the Steelers – I fully expect the Cowboys offense to be a more complete opponent this Sunday. The Rams will have to score to keep up.

Further, the Dallas pass rush is at least as potent as Pittsburgh's was. In fact, the Cowboys defense leads the NFL in pressure rate. And according to ESPN Stats & Info, at home the Cowboys are allowing the lowest QBR and completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks this season.

So, in a homecoming game for the Rams quarterback, go to work, Matthew Stafford.

Mano a Mano

One of the more interesting contrasts between Stafford and his counterpart Dak Prescott comes via NFL Research, ESPN Analytics, and Next Gen Stats.

Stafford has a 45.9 completion percentage versus man coverage in 2023 (fourth-lowest in NFL), while the Cowboys defense plays man on 44.9 percent of snaps (the highest rate in NFL).

Conversely, Prescott has struggled against zone coverage with three interceptions and zero touchdowns this season. Since the start of last season, Prescott has the second-highest interception rate against zone coverage and ranks near the bottom of the NFL in yards per attempt and completion percentage. As you know from following the Rams, they have played the highest rate of zone coverage over that span.

Prescott has been carving up blitzes this season, but thankfully, the Rams have only sent extra rushers at a 22 percent rate this season, one of the lowest clips in the NFL.

For more on the quarterback comparison, check out this week's Between the Horns

Guarded Optimism

Steve Avila is another product of the Metroplex set to play in front of his hometown, something we spoke about on this week's Rams Revealed.

The rookie left guard continues to impress, on and off the field.

If you haven't seen his spike after Tutu Atwell's touchdown last week, or the Avila Leap, I highly recommend you check out the details on both.

Playoff Picture

Let me take the implications of this game in three steps, if you'll allow it.

First, I'd like to convince you that despite the 3-4 mark on the season, the Rams are a playoff team based on their objective performance through two months.

The Rams are sixth in the NFC in point differential and sixth in DVOA.

There is ample evidence, but here is just one of my favorite visuals.

Moral of the story, you'd be hard-pressed to find more than five NFC teams demonstrably better than the Rams.

Playoff Environment

But postseason reservations aren't secured via power ranking or statistical performance. Only wins can get you beyond Week 18. And right now the Rams are part of a five-team NFC bunch at 3-4.

If you want to be a playoff team, you need to go get one of these games you're "not supposed to win." That's especially true having just dropped a game you definitely "should have won."

In essence, Sunday in Arlington is exactly the type of opportunity the Rams are stiving to earn between now and January – a road trip to face a Dallas, or a Detroit, or a Philadelphia, or a San Francisco.

So go capitalize on it, with a game plan and a determination and the execution required to not only reach an NFC Wild Card contest, but to prove you can do damage.

That's a daunting task – after all, the Cowboys have won 10 straight home games, the longest active streak in the league – but it's also one the Rams have shown they're capable of. They've played seven times and had a path to victory in every single one.

Dallas as a Data Point

And thirdly, the ramifications of this outcome, which will be a final data point before decision day across the NFL.

This is the final weekend before the trade deadline – Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

Sunday's outcome feels like it's worth more than one game, does it not? The divide between 4-4 and 3-5 for the Rams is immense.

So, too, is the difference between your peers (and potential trade partners) on the bubble taking a step forward or back between now and Monday night.

Look at how the picture has changed for Minnesota, for instance, following a triumph over San Francisco. Are the Vikings "sellers" anymore, if they back it up with a win over Green Bay? Doubt it. As of today, they'd be the seven-seed.

Conversely, Washington has faltered with deflating losses to the Bears and Giants in October. If Philadelphia beats the Commanders on Sunday, what will their posture be at 3-5? Reports from around the league already suggest that they're taking calls.

We'll get to more of the games that really matter at the end of this column.

Strength of Schedule

One other note that relates to where the Rams are at this moment in time.

What was supposed to be a "third-place schedule" doesn't feel like it at all. How come?

Catching the AFC North and the NFC East as crossover divisions – potentially the two best in the NFL – is the biggest reason, in my estimation.

The Rams opponents to date have won 26 games, collectively. No team in the NFC has faced a schedule with more combined wins.

And as of Sunday's game versus the Cowboys, the Rams will have faced four of the current top six seeds in the conference standings. They'll also have dealt with six of the top eight defenses in creating pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

Take a look through the best photos of Los Angeles Rams players practicing ahead of Sunday's Week 8 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys.

2017 Vibes?

Anytime the Rams face the Cowboys, I think about the 2017 win at AT&T Stadium.

To my recollection, it was a major inflection point in the Sean McVay era – arguably the most significant of that first season.

Down 24-13 inside the two-minute warning, the Rams were able to connect on a field goal drive as the first half expired. Then, Wade Phillips and the defense held the Cowboys to six points the rest of the way, and L.A. came home at 3-1.

We knew that something had changed for the organization that afternoon; that Jared Goff was a professional quarterback; that Todd Gurley's potential had been maximized; that McVay was the real deal.

Very little was expected of the 2017 Rams, yet they spun a four-win campaign into a division title and 11 victories a season later.

Clearly, we're at a much different chapter of Rams history heading back to Arlington. But similarly, next to nothing was expected of the 2023 Rams – hence the early window kickoff against "America's Team."

And I sincerely believe a win for this group could have a similar ripple effect, especially for the rookies and sophomores who are the undergirding of this roster, and have not felt the surge of confidence that can come from a triumph like beating the Cowboys in their building.

Here's The Kicker

Of course, the thing about that 2017 win was Greg the Leg's epic performance.

Zuerlein broke the Rams record for most field goals in a game, connecting on all seven attempts, and earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

After releasing (another former Cowboy) Brett Maher on Tuesday, Los Angeles is in a much difference place with respect to the place kicker.

And while I started this column promising myself I wouldn't get into the kicking situation, turns out I've got more thoughts than I realized. So here they are, and feel free to take them or leave them:

First, your predicament always feels like the worst in the league. But the 49ers drafted a kicker in the third round, and he's played a huge role in back-to-back losses. We all love Matt Gay, but let's not forget that part of the reason the Rams got out of Indianapolis in Week 4 was his missed 47-yarder. There are countless examples from around the NFL of kickers underachieving, not that I disagree with the decision to replace Maher and give someone else a look.

Secondly, no matter who special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn chooses to put on the plane to Dallas, it would be awesome to see McVay and the Rams lean into a four-down identity starting Sunday. All the analytics are in place to support keeping a top-10 quarterback at the controls and one of the league's most efficient offenses on the field up until the circumstances demand a field goal try.

"Those are things that you want to consistently and intentionally be better about for our team," McVay said on Wednesday. "And that's an exact conversation that I've had with myself and with other members of the staff as we move forward."

And finally, because placekickers like Maher only have one job, they're easy to spotlight for shortcomings. But I don't have to argue that other Rams had an equal if not greater hand in the Rams snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against the Steelers. Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee, Stafford, and others would tell you as much, themselves.

The Rams lead the NFL in drops – and many of those miscues are on the backs of their most veteran players and captains (though Puka Nacua's had his share). This has to be the week where the offense cleans those up, because like I wrote up top, it's going to take touchdowns not field goals to beat the Cowboys.

Games That Matter in Week 8

Now to what I think of as a Separation Sunday in the National Football League.

Really, it began on Thursday with the Buffalo Bills handing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers their fourth loss. That dropped the Bucs from seventh to eighth in the NFC playoff standings.

There are a heaping of interconference pairings this week where an AFC win over an NFC opponent could bolster L.A.'s chances. Those games include:

The Raiders traveling to Detroit (5-2). The Bengals visiting the suddenly faltering 49ers (5-2). The Titans hosting the surprising Falcons (4-3). The Browns taking on the 12s in Seattle (4-2). The Colts don't want the Saints (3-4) marching through Indianapolis. And the Jets have no reason to give the Giants (2-3) any life in their collision at MetLife Stadium.

To repeat, any win by the AFC in those games is a freebie for the Rams.

Within the NFC, we mentioned the Eagles having a chance to turn the lights out on the Commanders, and barring a tie, either the Vikings or Packers will take a fifth loss in Week 8.

By the time the Rams land at LAX on Sunday, the playoff picture can swing entirely back in their favor. Let's see if they're able to achieve the complete performance they've been closing in on.

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