The second-biggest point spread thus far of the playoffs is reserved for a team that, in the middle of the season, was in danger of not even sniffing the playoffs vs. a squad that has been one of the most dominant in the league this year. But now the Cowboys have won eight of their last nine, including an awfully impressive victory last week vs. the Seahawks in the wild card. Meanwhile, once-dominant Los Angeles has been treading water, going 2-2 in the past month and showing some vulnerabilities. I don’t have many issues picking the Rams to win here, but I’m a little stumped whether I believe Dallas can cover the seven-point line. L.A. has been average against the spread this year, and it’s home-field advantage is fairly non-existent. You have to question how Rams quarterback Jared Goff will fare against the tough Cowboys defense, and Dallas will make this game just a little too close for comfort. But the Cowboys will fall just short.
Predicting DAL +5
Dallas' defense will get tested by the high-powered Rams offense. Cowboys linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will roam sideline to sideline in an attempt to slow down the Rams' attack, which sputtered down the stretch. Quarterback Jared Goff will need running back Todd Gurley to get in gear to open up the passing game. Dallas will pound the ball with Ezekiel Elliott and precision passing from QB Dak Prescott to Amari Cooper. The Rams feature one of the top defensive lines in the league, built around MVP candidate Aaron Donald, who had 201/2 sacks. The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game on the road since January 1993 and haven't won two playoff games in the same season since 1995-96 on the way to their last Super Bowl title. Meanwhile, the Rams haven't won a playoff game since the 2004-05 season. Something's gotta give.
The Rams just haven’t been the same team since losing Cooper Kupp to a knee injury. LA was 9-1 before losing him for the season and is just 4-2 since. Jared Goff really has struggled, with his passer rating being 30 points lower in games without Kupp while completing just 60 percent of his passes compared to the 68.4 percent mark he was completing before the injury. We also don’t know how healthy Todd Gurley is, and even if he’s healthy, Dallas apparently has the sort of defense that has given the Rams fits this season. And I haven’t even mentioned the Rams’ leaky run defense trying to stop Ezekiel Elliott.
This will be another game decided by the running attack. The Rams have the worst rush defense in the league, allowing 5.1 yards per carry. This is an appetizing stat for Elliott, who likely will have a huge game on the ground. When Elliott rushes for more than 100 yards, the Cowboys are 7-1 SU this season. Dallas’ strong rush defense also will be able to limit Gurley. The unit limited Seattle’s elite rushing attack to just 73 yards during the wild-card round. If Gurley can’t get it going and Dallas jumps ahead of LA early, expect a high-volume game for Goff. When Goff throws the ball 40-plus times this season, the Rams are 1-3 SU and two of those losses were against elite run defenses (Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints).
The key to beating the Rams in this one will be the Cowboys' ability to run it.
It’s difficult to lay a touchdown with the Rams, considering the Cowboys were the better team in the second half of the season. Dallas finished the regular season with a 7-1 record and three wins over playoff teams. Los Angeles lost three games after Week 8, and they were beaten by at least a touchdown in their last two contests with postseason teams. The Cowboys’ defense gives them a real shot to pull off the upset in L.A. Dallas is 4-2 against the spread in their last six road games.
The Cowboys should be able to control the ball and finish long drives. To counter, the Rams need a healthy Gurley to grind through Dallas’ stout front seven, and Goff to be patient against a good, bend-but-don’t-break pass defense. The Cowboys match up well against the Rams, and the lack of home-field edge for the hosts also hurts in an upset.
But the offense, while still not replacement level, has found balance, and the defense has been dominant. And that's the thing: If Dallas' offense can lean on Ezekiel Elliott (the Rams' run defense ranks 28th, according to Football Outsiders), control the clock, and keep Dak Prescott from having to win it by himself, they can win.
The Rams like to run the ball and Dallas excels at stopping the run (fifth in DVOA). The Rams aren't great at stopping the run (28th in DVOA), and the Cowboys love to run. The biggest thing that scares me is Wade Phillips wanting revenge against Jason Garrett and the Cowboys, but ultimately this line is just too big for a Cowboys team that has morphed into a dangerous team since Amari Cooper arrived.
When I do, I see the Cowboys linebackers wreaking havoc on Jared Goff, who has been anything but fantastic as of late, unless you count victories over lowly Arizona and San Francisco. (I don't.) He has thrown for more than 216 yards once over the past five weeks, and I keep seeing visions of his four-interception game against the Bears in Week 14. It's all about Zeke and the Dallas D, and that's plenty enough for the upset.
The thing about the Cowboys though is that they have the ultimate playoff weapon: Ezekiel Elliott. If the Cowboys are smart, they are going to get out two spoons and feed Zeke for three straight hours on Saturday.
Defense was the theme of last week’s wild-card games, and the Cowboys play it exceptionally well. But they also scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, right when it appeared their offense would never solve the Seahawks defense. The Cowboys will need all that and more against the Rams, who will be making their second playoff appearance with quarterback Jared Goff. The Cowboys better be prepared for Aaron Donald.
Make no mistake, there will be plenty of Cowboys fans in Los Angeles this Saturday. But it’s still a road game, and Dallas has been a much different team away from AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys ranked 23rd in yards per play on the road (5.2) during the regular season, while the Rams ranked second in yards per play at home (6.5). Gurley is an unknown coming off a knee injury, but not playing since Dec. 16 could be a blessing in disguise. The Cowboys ranked 26th at defending running backs in the passing game, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and the Rams should lean heavily on their well-rested, duel-threat All-Pro, particularly in the screen game.
If Gurley’s knee is sound, or at least a reasonable approximation of sound, the Rams should be able to outpace the more grinding Cowboys’ offense fairly easily. But they will need to keep their foot on the gas because the worst-case scenario for Los Angeles would be keeping things close enough that Dallas can put the ball in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott. The N.F.L.’s leading rusher, Elliott would feast against a defense that allowed a horrendous 5.1 yards a carry this season.
Great offense vs. great defense. Each team has a distinct advantage in this matchup. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Rams, which have the personnel to be the most well-rounded team in the league. Their defense underachieved in the regular season, however, to rank 28th in the NFL in giving up 6 yards per play. Dallas sits ninth in surrendering only 5.4 yards per play. The difference may seem major, but Los Angeles’ edge is more significant on offense — it’s gaining 6.4 yards per play to the Cowboys’ 5.4 yards per play. And there’s reason to believe Los Angeles could be in the midst of a turnaround on defense, given that it’s gotten healthier and some of the midseason drop-off can be attributed to perilously-thin depth. Dallas’ offense, on the other hand, is reliably mediocre. And despite worn clichés that may indicate otherwise, offense is slightly more important — and predictable on a game-to-game basis — than defense. All signs point towards the Rams.
Still, though, if Dallas scores 20 or more points, I think they are a virtual lock to win. I don’t see that happening. The Rams should establish early momentum and then wear down this Jones’ team.