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Los Angeles Rams vs. Dallas Cowboys divisional playoffs: The Professor’s preview

Time for history to be made again.

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Welcome to the game-by-game process.

Historical consistencies.

If your team is going to win, they must avoid turnovers and penalties. Teams with little if any playoff experience often make these mistakes.

Any team making the playoffs is good enough to win any game, regular season records begone. Every team has to bring their A game. Better teams can’t afford to play sloppy football or get away from what got them to the playoffs in the first place.

The road team is nearly always the underdog. That team then has nothing to lose since they’re not supposed to win anyways. Favorites often lose because they crumble under the pressure and play a game out of a fear of losing, rather then playing to win the game.

Home field advantage can be a significant difference in the playoffs. West coast teams travelling to the east coast aren’t used to winter weather conditions. And home crowds can bring teams back or provide inspiration for a last-minute drive for a winning score.

In divisional round games, teams with the bye are rested but anxious, while teams traveling from the wild card game have experience playing in a high impact game the week before leading to a tendency of being more patient, That’s why bye week teams tend to start off slow and out of sync.

Injuries play a significant factor. An 80% starter isn’t always better than a 100% percent back-up.

All that matters is the game.

Here’s how our Los Angeles Rams beat the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday.

Cowboys overview

The Cowboys play a standard 4-3 defense. They have an outstanding front four and excellent linebackers. It’s fair to say the Dallas defense is one of the best in the league because they keep it simple—fundamentally sound, tackling their opponents at the point of contact rather trying to tackle at the shoulders where most of the whiffs happen.

On offense, it begins and ends with the Cowboys’ run game featuring RB Ezekiel Elliott. He’s not the most versatile running back, but he is the best runner in the league. Smallish in size, he’s hard to find in the hole, but stout enough to plow through tackles and pick up that extra yard just when you think your defense had him stopped for no gain. When the Cowboys’ run game is going as planned, this is when their offense is most effective opening up the passing game with playaction. QB Dak Prescott may not be the most accurate of passers, but he’s no slouch either and can beat you with his arm when things are going as planned.

Rams overview

The Rams run a 3-4 defense. Despite featuring the reigning defensive player of year in DT Aaron Donald, we have been poor at stopping the run. The Rams’ pass defense without CB Aqib Talib was also below standard; with Talib, the Rams’ secondary is much better. The Rams have been playing better defense down the stretch which they have needed while the offense was struggling. The one plus for the Rams’ defense is the turnover category ranking as one of the best.

The Rams’ offense is not one-dimensional. The Rams can win running the ball with RB Todd Gurley or with QB Jared Goff passing to WRs Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods or Josh Reynolds. The loss of WR Cooper Kupp for the season has hurt the Rams, but they have also find found life with TE Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett in the passing game. The Rams have a bevy of offensive weapons. With Head Coach Sean McVay scheming things, they have enough to beat even the best defensive team in the league. When it’s all said, every Rams win comes down to how well they execute the gameplan.

Special teams overview

As for special teams, both teams are good but not equal. A slight edge has to be given to the Rams with K Greg Zuerlein. In a game of this magnitude, it might just come down to “Greg the Leg” and the field position provided by P Johnny Hekker when he punts.

Both Cowboys PR Tavon Austin and Rams PR JoJo Natson could be gamechangers. Don’t sleep on either one of them.

Tayawesome will certainly be thinking about getting revenge in the Coliseum. Rams fans know that he can do damage, so it will be imperative that the Rams kick away from him or at least neutralize his abilities by not outpunting the coverage.

Coaching overview

This is McVay’s second playoff game. Meanwhile, Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips has lost count of the playoff games he’s been involved with.

On the other side of the ball, Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett is in his eighth year of heading up the Cowboys. He’s 2-2 in playoff games. His best team was in 2016 which went 13-3 in the regular season but wound up losing to the wild card winning Green Bay Packers in Dallas. Rams fans can empathize with that having suffered through last year’s game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Rod Marinelli, famous for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Cover 2 defense, is defensive coordinator while Scott Linehan, former head coach of the Rams in St. Louis from 2006-08, is in charge of the offense.

The most notable assistant coach on the Cowboys is Defensive Backs Coach & Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard, former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator. A hot head coaching candidate due to the improved play of the Dallas defense, Richard has familiarity with McVay’s offense last season in Seattle..

Management overview

Everyone knows Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones who also serves as general manager. Some would argue the he acts as the de facto head coach of his team. He’s the first one in front the cameras after a game and he never misses an opportunity to tell the football world how good America’s Team is.

Rams Owner Stan Kroenke is the publicly polar opposite of Jerry shying away from any publicity by keeping a very low profile. Kroenke relies on the football professionals to make the decisions regarding what’s in best interest for the franchise headed up by General Manager Les Snead.

Nonetheless, Jerry and Stan have struck up an professional relationship as Jerry was an instrumental supporter guiding the Rams’ through the relocation process which brought the team back to Los Angeles.

Both have pockets full of money and spend it on the their teams while bucking against the traditional ownership class.

What the Rams need to do offense

The Professor takes the position it’s not going to be up to the running games with Gurley but rather McVay’s playcalling and QB Jared Goff’s execution of the passing gameplan.

The Cowboys’ defense is almost identical to Seattle’s and the 49er’s. In the wild card, Seattle’s top rushing offense was completely stifled. Even though the Seahawks were getting nothing, they stuck to the run rarely throwing the ball even on third-and-long. Throwing the ball is not Seattle’s identity, running the ball is. But watching the game, it reminded me of the guy who keeps pounding his head against the wall expecting different results instead of anticipating the big headache he gets.

The Seahawks are not the Rams who are much more proficient at getting success passing the ball. McVay’s offensive strategy is designed to be aggressive, so much so that even if its third-and-short, he will often call a pass downfield, instead of a run or dink and dunk pass just to pick up the first down.

This is why the game will come down to Goff.

He has to be accurate. He has to be quick with his reads. He must avoid any interceptions or strip sacks. When Jared plays smart, the running game is more productive. This is achieved by McVay utilizing an uptempo, no huddle offense, with lots of motion and run-pass-options getting Jared into an early rhythm and preventing the Cowboys from situational substitutions.

This gameplan cannot will work unless the Rams’ offensive line controls the line of scrimmage. Under pressure, Goff hurries his mechanics leading to sometimes terrible throws to wide open receivers. More often than I’ve wanted to see this year, it leads to an untimely interception or strip sack fumble.

The game will be won or lost with Jared.

My hope is that Goff learned from last year’s playoff experience against the Falcons. Throw the ball out of bounds or take the sack when under pressure so that the Rams’ offense can live for another day. And no matter what, don’t fumble the ball!

The Rams’ targets have to make the catches. Force the Cowboys to stretch their defense against the pass. When this happens, Gurley can either run it for easy three- to four-yard gains or McVay can dial up the playaction to Gurley who is most dangerous over the middle or on the edge rumbling down the field for huge gains.

Most observers seem to feel that the Rams must be able to establish the run first, then the pass. I would concur with this if I didn’t have the upmost confidence in Goff’s ability and McVay’s own confidence in Jared to execute his plays.

The Rams moved up in the 2016 NFL Draft to take Jared with the first overall pick for a reason. The organization believed he would become an elite quarterback. It’s true that Jared has had some bad games this year against the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, but he has also had some remarkable performances against the Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs, the best I’ve ever seen from a Rams quarterback since Kurt Warner. Jared’s inconsistency is what’s hurts the Rams.

But this is the playoffs. There is no tomorrow to correct it. The Rams will live and die this year with Jared, not Todd. Goff’s the one player that can propel the Rams to the Super Bowl. In order to get there, it starts on Saturday.

Play quick. Play smart. Be accurate. Make the blocks. Get the pass game going to open up the run game. Score 30+ points, and there’s a better the 85% chance the Rams will move onto the NFC Championship game.

What the Rams need to do on defense

Stop Zeke. Stop Zeke. For emphasis, stop Zeke.

Many believe that Dallas can’t win when forced to rely Prescott’s arm. QBR and percentages can be misleading.

The eyes don’t lie.

Prescott is only effective when the running game is clicking. The Cowboys’ offensive line is good, but certainly not the best in the league as they were once touted. This mirrors the inconsistency Dallas’ offense has exhibited throughout the season. The Cowboys have been much better since the halfway point, but old habits die hard.

When the Rams played the Cowboys last year, they recognized how important stopping the Cowboys’ running game was dropping eight into the box and effectively shutting down Zeke. Unfortunately, this year’s Rams’ defense against run has been abysmal.

Everyone knows that Dallas will be scheming to neutralize Donald. He must likely will be double- and triple-teamed. It’s therefore imperative that DT Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers play their best game of the year against the run when it counts most. The same is true for LB Mark Barron. He can’t whiff on tackles. Hit Zeke low, and don’t try to bring him down at the shoulders.

The Rams have to stuff the run at the point of attack. When unable to get the three-and-out, the Rams’ offense will be sitting on the sidelines while the Cowboys’ offense chews up valuable clock time moving the chains. If the Rams’ defense is able to force the Cowboys into having to throw, then Donald and OLB Dante Fowler, Jr. to need to get sacks and maybe force a strip sack fumble. And like Goff, Prescott has provided them more often than should have been the case.

Under pressure, the Rams cannot allow Prescott to escape from the pocket. Stats may be deceiving, but what you do see is Dak’s ability to make the big play with his legs. His size and speed demonstrate that he’s well equipped to handle scrambling for big gains when tucks the ball and takes off.

Just ask the Seahawks. Their inability to contain Dak up the middle on on a third-and-14 (!) scramble, led to a 16-yard run and a first down at the one-yard line that led to the touchdown that won the game for the Dallas.

This cannot happen to the Rams.

If the Rams can slow the run even if they’re unable to apply pressure, none of the wide receivers other then Amari Cooper should scare you. In fact, Cooper is sure to be double-teamed forcing Dak to hit the other receivers. Even if the pass is accurate, safety valve Cole Beasley, who is questionable on the injury report, or Austin have been prone to drop the pass. The passing game for Dallas hasn’t worked as well as expected it was this year either because Dak has been inaccurate or because of the untimely drop.

I’m not worried about the tight ends for Dallas. They’re just as iffy as Beasley or Austin, and the only ball Elliott catches out of the backfield is the screen pass. After having major success earlier in the season, defenses around the league have now caught onto that aspect of the Cowboys’ offense.

The Rams’ defense is nowhere near as good as the Cowboys’. Nevertheless, I am also confident that Phillips will have the right gameplan in place to stop Zeke.

Once that happens, the Rams should be able to pressure Dak causing the sack, sack fumble or errant inaccurate pass to perhaps get picked off by Talib or CB Marcus Peters.

I’ve got my fingers crossed that Donald partnered up with buddies Fowler, Suh and Brockers will somehow and someway be able to come out with the games of their lives. I’m counting on Wade to make that possible with a shutdown gameplan.

What the Rams need to do on special teams

This is the toughest part to predict. I believe that Zuerlein has an edge over Cowboys K Brett Maher on consistency. In a game like this, every field goal attempt has to result in points.

Natson and Austin are a push. Both can make plays, but both can muff the punt as easily as the next guy. I believe that both teams will try to play it safe by kicking away from these guys rather then take the chance of big return. The key will be when a punt has to be fielded and who makes the big play or big blunder. But any punt can turn into a nightmare for the Rams if JoJo plays like Pharoh Cooper did in the wildcard game last year against the Falcons.

Rams P Johnny Hekker has a decided edge over Cowboys P Chris Jones as he does over any other punter in the NFL.

Special teams are very important in the playoffs, just ask the Chicago Bears. In my judgment, the Rams have a very slight edge in this area. Hopefully, the game won’t involve a Rams’ muff or fumble or come down to a last-second field goal.


The biggest x-factor going into this game is the fact that our staff at TST has barred Rob (@SeattleRams_NFL) from attending the game since he’s 0-4 at the Coliseum when in attendance. Any attempt to step into the confines of the Coliseum will be cut off since his wanted poster will be posted on every gate entry and everywhere in Exposition Park adjoining the Coliseum. And if that’s not enough, TST staffers have produced flyers to be handed out to fans attending the game containing pictures of his various disguises just in case he tries to sneak in.

Getting a bye and having home-field advantage is supposed to mean something. Knowing that Rob isn’t going to be there helps the cause.

It should also be noted that Dallas has a 3-5 road record this year, but I don’t put too much stock in that since there’s been a lot of talk in Los Angeles that the Cowboys’ contingent will outnumber Rams fans making the Coliseum a de facto Cowboys home game. Word spread quickly through social media to Rams fans that aren’t attending to not sell their tickets to Cowboys fans.

As Rams Head Coach Sean McVay said...

Don’t do it.

For me, it’s not whether there are considerable number of Dallas fans in the stands. It will be up to the Rams fans in attendance to rock the Coliseum like they did against the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this year on Monday night.

The weather might have been an x-factor earlier in the week, but as of now the rain that was projected to fall on Saturday is expected to be a cloudy and 58 degrees. Instead, the time of the game is an x-factor. Game time is 5:15pm PST.

Night games at the Coliseum see kicks and punts die in the heavy air. Kickoffs may not reach the end zone. Punts don’t go as far as usual. But the Rams’ kicking duo have experienced this environment. Expect the Cowboys to have a minor problem with this early, but after that, this too will become a non-factor.

At night, the Coliseum the grass has a heavy dew on it. There could be some slipping and sliding forcing the teams to stay grounded for fear that a receiver will fall down leading to an easy interception. I have to say under the circumstances that this favors the Cowboys with Zeke. I also believe that Rams aren’t going to rely as much on run game as expected, since under McVay the Rams’ offense is never afraid to put the ball in the air.

If the playoff history between these two teams is to be factor, its hard to judge at 4-4.

The Rams have been the most successful franchise playing the Cowboys within the NFC. When both teams on paper had better teams then the other, both have suffered humiliating playoff loses the other. History may well play a factor if the Rams, who on paper have the better team, come out flat and play down their opponent.

Playing after a bye week versus playing after playing in the wildcard game is also an x-factor.

The Rams were terrible coming off the bye this year. Playoff games are a different animal. I would like to see the Rams come out on fire, but wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow start then quickly rebound. If that happens they just need to weather the storm early.

Referees are an x-factor.

These guys can kill your team’s hope with bogus calls. While I don’t make much of regular season miscues because there’s always next week, I can only hope that in this game the refs will just let the players play.

The ramifications of even thinking about the possibility of losing this game, whether it was to either the Bears or Cowboys cannot be overstated. In order to win over Angelenos en masse, the Rams must show they deserve a part of what we call the “City of Champions.” Lose and its back to the “same old sorry ass Rams.”

This of course is my greatest fear - not only what a loss the the Cowboys would mean for me personally given the playoff history between the two teams, but what effect it will have on the next generation of diehards.

But upon the return of the Rams to LA, I’ve noticed a different kind of vibe emanating from this squad. Whether its the management, coaching or personalities of the players, this Rams team has what the kids call “swagger.”

These players enjoy playing for LA. They enjoy the game of football, They have more fun on the field then I’ve witnessed a Ram team to have and its infectious. To me this is the biggest factor going into the game.

The fact that McVay has these Rams in just two short years on the verge of playing for a chance to play in the Super Bowl against the backdrop of long-suffering Rams’ fans, having felt more than their fair share of pain, this time will be different.

We will not be denied the glory we deserve...