After the loss by the Bears last weekend, the Cowboys became the opponent to face the Rams in the divisional round. Having won 8 of their last 9 games the Cowboys are as hot as any team currently and come into Los Angeles with one of the most balanced rosters in the NFL.
Despite the Rams having a much better regular season record than the Cowboys, the teams are a lot closer in talent than most people may think.
Both the Rams and the Cowboys have third year quarterbacks in Jared Goff and Dak Prescott. Jared Goff finished this season with 4,688 yards, 32 TDs, 12 INTs, and a rating of 101.1. Prescott finished the year with 3,885 yards, 22 TDs, 8 INTs, and a rating of 96.9. Although Goff has had the better overall numbers for the season, Prescott has been playing better the past month. He has 1,435 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his last five games while Goff has 1,141 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in his. It is also worth noting that Prescott is a much better scrambling quarterback than Goff is but Goff is a much better downfield thrower. In terms of match-up, Goff is facing a Dallas defense that was ranked 13th in passing yards allowed and 22nd in opposing QB rating. Prescott is facing the Rams defense that was ranked 14th in passing yards allowed and 17th in opposing QB rating.
The Rams and Cowboys are lucky enough to each have a superstar running back who many people would argue are the two best in all of the NFL. Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott have both taken on the role of a workhorse back and then some. They are involved in every aspect of the offense and are just as effective at pass blocking and receiving as they are at running. Both running backs had over 1,800 total yards, were top 5 in the NFL in rushing yards, rushing attempts, yards per game, and 20+ yard rushes. They both had over 50 receptions and 500 receiving yards as well.
The only noticeable difference between Elliott and Gurley this season was Gurley scored 21 touchdowns compared to Elliott’s 9. However, Gurley is facing a much tougher run defense this week than Elliott. The Cowboys run defense ranks 5th in the NFL in both yards allowed and yards per carry while the Rams run defense ranks 23rd and 32nd in those categories. Even though Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott are very close in talent, Gurley will have a much tougher time finding running lanes this week.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
Even without Cooper Kupp, the Rams still have arguably one of the best one two punches at the WR position with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods. This season Cooks and Woods each had over 80 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards. They have the route running ability and speed to be a mismatch for any secondary. Despite Dallas having a great defense, they can be vulnerable to the deep ball and that’s where Cooks and Woods shine. They have a combined 42 receptions that have gone for 20 yards or more and are the only pair of teammates in the NFL to have over 20 each (Cooks 22, Woods 20). Besides Woods and Cooks, the Rams will try and spread the ball around to Josh Reynolds, Gerald Everett, and Tyler Higbee.
On the other side of the ball, Dallas’ receiving core can best be described as Amari Cooper and a bunch of guys. Even though Cooper only played 9 games for the Cowboys this year, he still lead the team with 725 yards and 6 touchdowns. Other than Cooper, the Cowboys number two receiving option tends to be Michael Gallup or Cole Beasley. Beasley is the safety blanket underneath route runner while Gallup tends to be more of a vertical threat. Neither WR poses to be a giant threat to the Rams secondary but may find more targets than usual if the Rams focus solely on stopping Cooper.
Contrary to previous seasons, one of the Rams biggest strengths is the offensive line. The Rams offensive line was ranked 1st overall in run blocking and 6th in pass protection by Football Outsiders. They are very balanced line that starts with the superior play of LT Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth is joined by Roger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe, and Rob Havenstein.
The Cowboys line has been a little worse than previous years due to their star linemen Zack Martin and Tyron Smith each missing games due to injuries. Nonetheless, the Cowboys still have very effective run blocking and rank 8th in the NFL by Football Outsiders. However, the Cowboys are the 28th ranked team in pass protection and one thing the Rams defense is great at is attacking the quarterback.
The Rams and the Cowboys finished right next to each other at 15th and 16th in the NFL in sacks. The Cowboys had 39 sacks with Demarcus Lawrence leading the team with 10.5. Besides, Lawrence the Cowboys have Randy Gregory, Tyrone Crawford, and Maliek Collins who all combined for 14.5 sacks. This defensive line is great at consistently causing pressure as well as stopping the run and the Rams offensive line will be tested by their speed. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they don’t have Aaron Donald.
There’s not much else that can be said about Aaron Donald. Donald lead the NFL with 20.5 sacks and is the driving force for the Rams defensive line. On his way to a second straight defensive player of the year award, Donald will take advantage of a Dallas offensive line that has been terrible at protecting the quarterback this season. Helping Donald get to Prescott will be Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, and Dante Fowler.
Linebackers are where the Cowboys have a significant advantage over the Rams. The Dallas linebackers are Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee who are all great at run defense and pass defense. They all very fast, athletic, and have a combined 291 tackles. Todd Gurley has his work cut out for him this week, as the Dallas linebackers make it extremely difficult to run the ball due to their ability to rush through the offensive line and stop running backs before they can get to the second level.
On the other hand, one of the weakest units for the Rams is their linebackers. Outside of Cory Littleton there has been a lot of frustration and disappointment for the Rams linebackers this year. Mark Barron in particular has missed a lot of tackles and gotten burned in pass coverage. This week the Rams linebackers will be put to arguably their toughest test yet, containing Ezekiel Elliott.
When healthy the Rams secondary has been very effective this year. Part of that success can be attributed to the shutdown corner, Aqib Talib. When Talib was injured the Rams pass defense was far worse than when he was on the field and since his return the Rams pass defense has significantly improved. Marcus Peters has become much more comfortable as the number two corner although he occasionally will allow a deep ball. Luckily, John Johnson has been playing fantastic as of late and should be able to help Talib and Peters over the top. As long as the Rams are able to keep Amari Cooper in front of them then they shouldn’t have too many problems stopping the Dallas passing attack.
The Cowboys have a secondary that is very physical and tough. Star cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Byron Jones are the forefront of a secondary that will press the opposing receivers and make every throw difficult. Safeties Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods provide solid over the top coverage and are very good at tackling players before they can get into the open field. The match-up between the Rams fast and flashy WRs vs the Cowboys tough and physical secondary will be very interesting to see how it will play out on Saturday.
Overall, the Rams and Cowboys are very similar at a lot of positions and thus this will be a game where the star players make a difference. This game could come down to the play of the best players on each team, Ezekiel Elliott and Aaron Donald. Both Elliott and Donald are in very favorable match-ups and should be able to have a few game changing plays. I expect the Cowboys to give the Rams a good fight and try to control the pace of the game but as long as the Rams are able to score early and maintain the lead they should be able to win.
Prediction: Rams 31 Cowboys 20
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