When the Philadelphia Eagles pulled off the upset against the Chicago Bears last night, it locked in the Los Angeles Rams to host the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs.
After the first half of the season yielded a 3-5 record, the Cowboys went on to win five straight to put themselves in firm grasp of the NFC East division leading to their 24-22 win over the Seattle Seahawks in the wild card round. Dallas has built a strong defense with great linebackers while leaning on RB Ezekiel Elliott and QB Dak Prescott on offense. As the Cowboys come to visit Los Angeles, here are the five key players for Saturday:
QB Dak Prescott
Perhaps one of the most polarizing players in the NFL, the Cowboys’ quarterback has vastly improved after the midseason trade for WR Amari Cooper. Ranked the 19th overall QB for the 2018 season by PFF, Dak completed 67.7% of his passes for 3,885 yards, 22 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Dak also added 305 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground. For the regular season, Prescott had a 58.6 QBR, which would be slightly above league average. In the contest against Seattle, Prescott completed 22/33 passes for 226 yards, one touchdown, one interception while rushing for 29 yards and a touchdown as well. The Rams’ defense will have to be disciplined as Prescott is a dual threat and has been relatively hot since the midpoint of the season.
CB Chidobe Awuzie
Awuzie (Ah-woo-zee-ay) has somewhat quietly risen among the Cowboys’ ascending defense. A second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Awuzie has emerged as one of the league’s better young defensive backs. For the season, he has 71 combined tackles, a forced fumble, and interception. PFF has him rated as an “above average” cornerback. Look for the Rams to try and perhaps attack the Cowboys on the perimeter more as their front seven is very stout.
RB Ezekiel Elliott
The NFL regular season leading rusher, Elliott continues to be the driving force of the Cowboys’ offense. Despite leading the league in rushing, PFF ranks Elliott as the 23rd best running back this year. Elliott rushed for 1,434 yards and six touchdowns while adding 567 yards receiving with three touchdowns. In the game against Seattle, Elliott showed why he is a dominant back with 26 carries for 137 yards and a touchdown. Elliott also added 32 yards via the air. The Rams’ main focus defensively will likely be slowing down the stud running back from Ohio State.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
The Cowboys’ first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Vander Esch has exceeded all expectations. Many thought he was a reach or a purely “need” pick, but all those questions have been quelled after his stellar play. Vander Esch was the third-leading tackler in the whole league with 140 tackles for the season and was able to keep veteran LB Sean Lee on the bench. In addition to the 140 tackles, the rookie linebacker also had two interceptions and earned a top-5 rank from PFF. Watching the Seahawks game, it was very evident that Vander Esch is a big-time player as he stuffed the stat sheet with 10 total tackles while being all over the field. Look for him and LB Jaylon Smith to get very familiar with RBs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson.
WR Amari Cooper
Perhaps in one of the biggest in-season trades in recent history, the Cowboys traded their 2019 NFL Draft first-round pick for Cooper. Many were quick to blast Dallas for what they considered a panic move, but over time the trade has been vindicated as Cooper has emerged as a true threat. For the season, Cooper has 75 receptions for 1,005 yards and seven touchdowns. In the playoff game against the Seahawks, Cooper was Dak’s favorite target, especially after WR Allen Hurns’ gruesome injury. Cooper was targeted nine times, yielding seven catches for 106 yards. Look for Rams CBs Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters to both have their chance at Cooper. There is a lot of familiarity as all three players have played in the AFC West before this season.