NFC Divisional Round preview: Cowboys-Rams

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The Backstory


The league's two best running backs will take the same field Saturday evening in Los Angeles.

Did we mention it's a playoff game?

Sure, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley won't face off directly, but their two squads will arrive to the L.A. Coliseum hungry for a trip they've each missed out on in upset fashion in the last two years. In 2016, it was Dallas losing to Green Bay at home that ended the Cowboys' season in sudden and stunning fashion. The next season, it was the Rams falling to the Falcons on Wild Card Weekend in an effort that left bitter tastes in the mouths of thousands of Angelenos (and beyond).

The Rams won their last meeting, 35-30, in 2017 in Arlington. But that seems like ages ago.

Dallas has revamped its defense with a pair of young, stud linebackers in rookie Leighton Vander Esch and second-year defender Jaylon Smith. Its defensive front causes plenty of issues, and the secondary is starting to come together, too.

Pair that with an offense predicated on Elliott (the league's leading rusher) that has seen significant improvement since adding Amari Cooper via trade -- really, are the Cowboys even here without the Cooper trade? -- and you have one of the league's more complete teams.

We can't forget the Rams, though, who were the darlings of the league until they fell to the Saints in Week 9. Of course, two weeks later they came out on top of the legendary Monday night shootout against the Chiefs, but they've been less than a straight-sailing ship in the final month of the season. Two relative cupcakes made things easier for them entering the playoffs, but Gurley hasn't played since Week 15 due to a knee injury. The break helped his recovery, but how quickly can he return to form?

And will the Rams' defense -- worst in the league in terms of yards-per-carry allowed -- reverse course and play well enough to keep Elliott contained? Might this all snowball?

So, while each team prepares to pass by cranes (the Coliseum is in the midst of a massive renovation) and into a venue from which only one will emerge still alive in the chase for Lombardi, allow us to check in on Around The NFL's Chris Wesseling, who spent his Wednesday agonizing not over this game, but the two feature backs:

This one brings every element you could wish for -- except maybe a premier quarterback showdown. About that...

Under pressure


Jared Goff: After reading the above introduction, you might think the pressure is on Gurley, but it isn't -- it's on Goff. The young quarterback was overwhelmed by the postseason in early 2018, but it's 2019 now and he has the wild-card loss under his belt as experience. The actual pressure in this situation will come from two sources: Dallas' pass rush, and his recent struggles. Goff rebounded against Arizona and San Francisco, but was noticeably inaccurate in a matchup against Philadelphia. He was even worse a week earlier against Chicago. Dallas' defense is different than either of the aforementioned, but has been lauded by many in recent weeks for flying to the football. It's young, athletic and poised to cause problems for an opposing offense. Might this be the one to wreck in the Divisional Round? It starts with the offensive line, which hasn't been as good as it was last season or earlier in this campaign, but is still a top-10 unit. Perhaps the pressure is on them -- no, it isn't, because Goff still has to make the reads, throws and plays necessary for Los Angeles to overcome a stingy defense and earn the playoff win their fans have been waiting on for a year.

Dak Prescott: We're not just cherry picking quarterbacks. Prescott has carried the pressure of the Cowboys' fortunes for a while now, in part because his fellow 2016 draftee Elliott has been so damn good. With Elliott's contribution all but assured, Dallas' fate rises and falls with each Prescott throw, scramble or read option. The latter has been particularly effective as of late, and since the addition of Cooper (who has made a significant difference in all aspects of Dallas' play, according to Next Gen Stats), Dallas' offense has taken on a new, dangerous form. Just ask Washington what hit them in their late regular-season meeting. Prescott made a grown man play late in Dallas' win over Seattle, taking a QB draw out of a five-wide set directly up the middle and across the goal line for what proved to be the game-winning score. Can he operate with similar poise on the road? The outcome will likely ride on him.

Matchup to watch


Aaron Donald vs. Cowboys interior OL: The key differentiator in this game won't be the play of Elliott or Gurley, but how well Joe Looney, Connor Williams and Zack Martin can handle Aaron Donald. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is playing more like a Most Valuable Player this season and has caused issues for every team he's faced. Dallas might find it useful to look back to its NFC East rival Philadelphia, which has stymied Donald, Khalil Mack and J.J. Watt, to find a strategy on how to combat Donald and Co. It will come down to how well Williams (a rookie) and Martin can handle Donald's powerful bull rushes, and how effectively the trio can work against Los Angeles' choice of stunts. Donald is the quickest off the snap in the game, well equipped to blow up zone schemes and traditional gap schemes, even against the Cowboys' versatile front five. Similarly agile reaction is necessary to keep him off Prescott. If Dallas can do this, it has an excellent chance at victory. If not, the onus will fall on its defense.

Prediction


Los Angeles spent plenty in the offseason to load up for a run. Les Snead put his money where his mouth was in the offseason, and it's time for the Rams to get the playoff win they've been trending toward since Sean McVay took over. This one is close, barely breaks 40 total points, sees Jared Goff to throw the Rams to victory and requires Los Angeles to play well above its head against Dallas' offense. That includes forcing a couple of Prescott interceptions and avoiding the massive chunks gained on the ground. The more I write this, the less likely it seems, but we're sticking with it. I drove by the new stadium in Inglewood Wednesday. It already looks magnificent. It's the Rams' time.

Rams 24, Cowboys 20

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