Despite the fact the Los Angeles Rams are touchdown favorites in this game, a surprising number of the talking head ''experts" are picking the Dallas Cowboys to win this game. That includes three of the four hosts on the NFL network's "Good Morning Football" program (Peter Schrager was the lone exception) as well as such predictable Ram haters as Colin Cowherd (this is a family blog so that I will restrain my usual criticisms on Colin). For whatever reason, the Cowboys seem like the trendy pick among media types. Moreover, they could win IF two things happen:
First, if Zeke Elliot can rush for over 120 yards, and rack up 150 yards from scrimmage.
Second, if the Cowboys defense can hold the Rams under 25 points, moreover, of course, turnovers are always the other deciding factor, as they are in every football game from Pop Warner league to the NFL playoffs. A Cowboy victory would not be a shocker here; we do not expect it will follow.
Rams Defense vs. Dallas Offense
Probably the number one question in this game will be if the Rams rushing defense and whether they can control the 2018 NFL top rusher, Ezekiel Elliot. If they can hold him under, let's say about 80 yards, the Rams should win this game handily. We do not think the Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott can win this game with his arm. One of the key matchups will be Rams DT Aaron Donald against Cowboy guards Zack Martin and Conner Williams. Martin is a pretty good player and might have a fighting chance (to the extent anyone ever does) against AD, but I think Williams, the rookie out of Texas, might be over-matched against Donald, and that could be a problem for Dallas. They will probably try to double-team Donald, but Aaron has seen a lot of that this season, being double teamed over 70 percent of the time, and it has not stopped him from being the best defensive player in the league. Could Ndamukong Suh and Micheal Brockers step up, especially in run defense? Let's hope so. The Rams gave up over five yards per rush during the regular season, and they have to do better than that, or they likely won't win this game. That of course, doesn't mean just the defensive linemen, it also means the linebackers, who as a unit have been the weak link here. The defense in general needs to be more disciplined, especially regarding gap integrity. That means taking care of assignments and not free-lancing so much. The good news is that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has had two weeks to try to fix the problems here.
While controlling the running game will be a top priority for the Rams defense, they cannot forget entirely about the passing game either. The Cowboys season turned around when they acquired wide receiver, Amari Cooper. While Cooper is not the typical diva, trash-talking wide receiver, he did brag this week about knowing Rams corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters ''inside and out," promising to rat out their alleged weaknesses to quarterback Dak Prescott. Of course, that is a two-sided coin, since Peters and Talib are also well acquainted with Cooper from the recent history all three players had in the AFC West. They are because both corners generally won most of their battles with Cooper, we kind of like this matchup for the Rams. The other key factor, of course, will be the battle up front. Despite the Cowboys reputation for having one of the better offensive lines in the league, Prescott was sacked 56 times this year, the second most of any NFL quarterback. Many observers put much of the blame on Prescott for holding the ball too long. Whatever the reason may be, the Cowboys probably don't want to fall too far behind in this game, because if they have to get too pass-happy, they may be in trouble.
Rams Offense vs. Dallas Defense
The Rams offense against the Cowboys defense is the marquee unit matchup of this game and maybe of the entire divisional round of the playoffs, matching strength against strength. The Cowboys had the 6th-best scoring defense in the league during the regular season, while the Rams scored more points (527) than any team except Kansas City. The Cowboys are not likely to win a shootout in this game, which means they probably have to keep the Rams under 30 points to win (under 25 would be better).
The Rams offense starts with Todd Gurley, and the good news for the Rams is that all signs point to his being healthy and well-rested for this game While they, of course, won't face each other directly, the Elliot vs. Gurley battle is a big one here, and whoever has a better game will give their team the edge. Gurley is dangerous not only as a runner, but he is also perhaps the league's best pass catcher coming out of the backfield. On the other side of the ball, Cowboy linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both had monster years and might be as good as any pair of linebackers in the NFL.
Rams running back CJ Anderson, who excelled in Gurley's absence will likely see some snaps in this game too. He was well over 100 yards rushing in both of his starts at the end of the year, subbing for TGII. While he is not the game breaker, Gurley is, he is a punishing, tough runner who showed more shiftiness than expected. Rams coach Sean McVay has said Anderson will play a role offense in the post-season. It will be interesting to see how McVay utilizes Anderson. When it comes to coach McVay and his offensive wizardry, expect the unexpected.
A key battle up front will pit Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein against Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence said this week that he wants to ''take Jared Goff's soul." While the league does not keep official stats on soul-snatching, Jared Goff had problems in games where he faced heavy pressure, notably the Bears and Eagles games. He showed a disturbing tendency to turn the ball over in key situations, and the Rams need to either curb the pass rush or go ''ground and pound." Goff, for his part, needs to be willing to either take the sack or throw the ball away safely.
One matchup we like in the passing game for the Rams is wide receiver Brandin Cooks against Cowboy corner Byron Jones. However, we cannot discount Rams receivers Robert Woods (who like Cooks had over 1,000 yards receiving this season). Also, Josh Reynolds either. Moreover, tight end Gerald Everett emerged as a threat late in the year as well. If the Rams O-line can mostly win up front, we think the Rams have too many weapons, even for a defense as good as that of the Cowboys.
Cowboys kick returner Tavon Austin would like nothing better than to get revenge on the team that traded him in the off-season (the Rams). Austin is feast or famine. His blistering speed always makes him a threat to take one to the house, but he also fumbles prone, and some say he rattled with a good, hard hit or two. Austin has been battling a groin injury, and if he cannot go Cole Beasley will run back kicks. Beasley is less explosive, but also less fumble prone. The Rams return game was not "all that" this season, and Dallas placekicker Brett Maher and punter Chris Jones are both well above average. However, the Rams have Cory Littleton, who made the pro bowl as a special teams player, as well as punter Johnny Hekker, both among the best in the league. Hekker, of course, is always a threat with the fake punt, and Littleton has a knack for blocking kicks. Placekicker Greg Zuerlein was 27 out of 31 on field goal attempts this season, with a long of 56, and he is a threat from 60 yards plus. We could make an argument either way here, but we are going to check the box for the Rams.
The X-factor is typically a category we include with this blog, but there are a couple of x-factors that might figure into this game. The first is the fact that Dallas has not been perfect on the road this year, going 3-5, while the Rams were 7-1 at home. Jared Goff, in particular, seemed better at the Coliseum than on the road. On the other hand, a significant contingent of Cowboy fans is expected to show up for this game. Estimates are that anywhere between 29 and 60 percent of those attending this game in person will be cheering for Dallas, which could mitigate the usual "crowd noise" factor that tends to plague visiting offenses in the NFL.
The other x-factor is injuries. The Rams have had two weeks of rest and recovery time, while Dallas has an assortment of bumps and bruises that may or may not factor into this game.
As we said at the outset, if Dallas can run the ball effectively and keep the Rams offense in the low 20s or lower, they can win. They also come in as a hot team, making this a hard game to predict. However, we think the Rams are a complete team, and probably a little better overall.