Cowboys focus bid to upset Rams on runners

The Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys will turn back the clock Saturday, wearing classic uniforms and reviving what used to feel like an annual playoff showdown, all while meeting in a stadium that played host to the first Super Bowl.

In a playoff matchup that has not been seen since January of 1985, the teams meet Saturday under the lights of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the NFC’s divisional round, the Rams wearing their throwback blue jerseys with bold yellow accents, and the Cowboys in their classic white jerseys and silver pants.

Ezekiel Elliott
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams (13-3) and the Cowboys (11-6 counting a playoff win) will square off as division champions, while looking to revive the glory days.

The Cowboys are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2016 season, having reached the postseason just twice since 2010. The Rams did get a taste of the playoffs last year, losing to the Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round, but it was their only appearance since 2005, when the team played in St. Louis.

Yet it is the Rams and their high-octane offense that could have the advantage Saturday, with home-field advantage after finishing second in the NFL in both total yards per game (421.1) and total points (527).

The Cowboys enter with a defense they believe can handle the onslaught, after finishing seventh in the league with 329.3 yards allowed per game. That defensive showing is better than any team remaining in the playoffs.

Yet the turning point for the Cowboys appears to have been a midseason trade with the Oakland Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper. Dallas went from a 3-5 team to a 7-1 finish, followed by a 24-22 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in last weekend’s wild-card round.

The Rams and Cowboys did meet in Week 4 last season at Dallas, with the Rams rallying for a 35-30 victory. And while both teams are far more polished now, with Los Angeles quarterback Jarred Goff much more seasoned and the Cowboys more cohesive as a unit, that game did mark something of an arrival for the Rams, who had only defeated the struggling Colts and 49ers to that point.

Counting that Oct. 1, 2017 victory over the Cowboys, until the end of this season, the Rams have won 22 games.

“We have a great respect for their team, they are really great in all three phases, but that was a long time ago,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said this week. “We’re a different team, they’re a different team and we are really focused on this week. But more importantly, just our preparation today.”

Rams getting healthy following bye

The Rams are upbeat about the return of Pro Bowl running back Todd Gurley (knee), who missed the final two regular-season games. C.J. Anderson was signed late in the season to pick up carries and was impressive, with the two backs expected to share time against the Cowboys.

If the Rams can establish the run, something the Seahawks couldn’t do against the Cowboys last week, it figures to open more downfield options for Goff.

The Rams’ passing game has been trying to find itself again since wide receiver Cooper Kupp was lost for the season in November with a torn ACL. Wide receiver Josh Reynolds has started to emerge since Kupp departed.

Sean McVay
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

“(The passing) game has definitely evolved,” Goff said this week. “We use two tight ends in some situations, finding some stuff that Josh is good at. I think that’s what makes (head coach) Sean (McVay) so great is that he doesn’t force players into a box but rather he finds out what they’re good at and finds a way to make it work.”

In running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys could have the ultimate equalizer. Consider the Rams allowed a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry this season, and Dallas’ gameplan would appear readymade. Elliott had 26 carries for 137 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks, and the Cowboys are 16-3 when Elliott tops 100 rushing yards in his career.

“What stands out is the consistency, play in and play out,” head coach Sean McVay said of the Rams’ plan for slowing Elliott. “He’s one of those guys that gets stronger as the game progresses where he’s getting about 30 touches a game. You see the great job he’s done in the pass game. He’ll stick his face on people in protection. He’s got the ability to make you miss. He’s got the ability to go through you, run away from you. He’s got a great stiff arm. He’s one of the most complete backs in this league, and it shows up week in and week out.”

Some four decades ago, these two franchises always found a way to make it work. Back when the Super Bowl era was moving to the forefront, the teams met in the playoffs five times the ’70s and three more times in the ’80s.

They went 4-4 in those games and the last time they met in a playoff game at the Coliseum, on Jan. 7, 1979, the Cowboys earned a 28-0 NFC Championship Game victory.

With the spot in the NFC Championship game on the line this week, the Rams are finally starting to look healthy with both Gurley and safety Lamarcus Joyner (ankle) back in practice. Cornerback Blake Countess (concussion) was limited in practice early this week.

Dallas doesn’t expect quarterback Dak Prescott to miss any time — Garrett underlined again Wednesday he’s in no risk of missing the game — with a knee injury incurred when he helicoptered over Seattle defenders for an apparent touchdown in the second half of last week’s win. The ball was later moved to just inside the 1-yard line.

Even with Prescott, the Cowboys’ injury situation is far more involved. Players that did not practice early this week: wide receivers Cole Beasley (ankle) and Noah Brown (illness), defensive tackle Maliek Collins (illness/ankle), defensive lineman David Irving (ankle) and tight end Blake Jarwin (ankle). Linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) was a full participant.

The list of those limited for the Cowboys in the early week was led by former Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin (groin). Also limited: defensive end Tyrone Crawford (neck), guard Zack Martin (knee), tackle Tyron Smith (neck), guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (ankle) and safety Darian Thompson (groin).

–Field Level Media

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