Saturday is one of the nights that's happened far too little for Cowboys fans over the last decade. Their team takes the national stage in prime time in Los Angeles, one upset away from playing in its first NFC Championship Game since January 1996.
Defense travels, and the Cowboys have a defense, their best since at least 2009. They've got a running game capable of turning any matchup into a four-quarter, competitive slugfest and a quarterback who can pick up tough first downs with his legs and generally makes good decisions in the passing game. There is no reason the Cowboys can't beat the Rams, who are 7-point favorites at home.
Here's what to watch for when Dallas shuts down to watch its team tomorrow night (7:15 on Fox 4).
1. Familiarity breeding contempt. — For the Cowboys to pull off the upset, they're going to need to hold the Rams to something around a touchdown below the 32.9 points per game they've averaged this season. The architect of that essential effort, secondary coach and defensive play caller Kris Richard, has more experience than most dealing with the L.A. offense.
As a Seahawks assistant last season, he game-planned for the Rams twice, watching his defense hold their opponents to just 10 points in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 2017, before seeing his scheme picked apart in 42-7 loss on Dec. 17. At times in 2017 and 2018, Rams quarterback Jared Goff has struggled against the three-deep scheme favored by both the Seahawks and Cowboys. If Richard can push the right buttons and draw up the right coverages, it could go a long way toward making Goff, who struggled over his last five games, look less than otherworldly.
2. Todd Gurley's knee. — Had the Rams not earned a first-round bye, there's every chance they would've been without star running back Todd Gurley for their first playoff game. Thankfully for their championship hopes, they did earn a bye and Gurley, who missed the last two games of the regular season, got an extra week of rest.
If the former Georgia standout doesn't miss a beat, the Cowboys will struggle to stop the Rams' dynamic offense. If he's playing in pain or simply a little rusty from the layoff, the Cowboys can drop more players into coverage, making Goff's job even harder.
3. Decision-making, on all sides. — Last week, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett did his best to sabotage his team at the end of the first half, jump-starting a dormant Seahawks offense by playing for a 58-yard field goal attempt. In the second half, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott forced a pass to Noah Brown deep in the red zone, leading to an interception that kept Seattle in the game at 17-14. The Cowboys were able to overcome the errors against the Seahawks, a team with whom they were on relatively equal footing, but they probably can't sustain such mental lapses against the Rams. The Cowboys can win without playing perfect, but they need to limit their unforced errors.
4. The Cowboys' interior pass protection. — While the Rams defense is far from the best in football — they gave up 24 points per game this year, good for 20th in the league — it boasts the NFL's most dominant player in defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Despite playing at what's traditionally a run-stopping position, Donald led the league with 20.5 sacks and forced four fumbles in 2018. He is a monster.
If the Cowboys have any hope of containing him, it will be by relying on double- and sometimes even triple-teams on the interior of the offensive line to keep him away from Prescott. All-Pro guard Zack Martin will do his job, but center Joe Looney and Martin's opposite at guard, Connor Williams, need to have their best performances of the season.
5. Zeke's motor — As Gurley and the Rams sat at home and watched last Saturday, Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 26 bruising times for the Cowboys, racking up a grueling 137 yards. Elliott's best attribute is the strength with which he runs, welcoming contact and often running through it. He's shown few signs of slowing down in the second half of the Cowboys' season, but his outsized role in the offense means that any decrease in production could doom Dallas against a team as prolific as the Rams. The Cowboys have to keep the Rams' offense off the field to give their defense a chance to reload — they can't do that without Elliott being able to run as hard as he can.
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