Dallas Cowboys

Five things to know before the Cowboys and Rams kickoff Saturday night

Thank goodness this game is on Saturday.

The anticipation for fans, players and, let’s be honest, the media for the divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams has been building all week and by Thursday’s last locker room session, DeMarcus Lawrence seemed to speak for everyone: Its’ time to rock and roll.

The Cowboys and Rams meet at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at the LA Memorial Coliseum for a chance to advance to the NFC Championship game. Just saying it out loud is enough to make a long-time Cowboys fan quiver with excitement. Why?

Because since Dallas won its last Super Bowl in January 1996, the Cowboys are 0-5 in the divisional round, including a loss to the Packers at AT&T Stadium in 2016 when Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were rookies.

Five things to know when the Cowboys and Rams kick Saturday night:

1. The stakes

In case you need a refresher on what Saturday’s game means for the Cowboys, let us review. Dallas is trying to advance to the NFC championship for the first time since January 1996. The Cowboys/Rams winner advances to the title game against the Eagles/Saints winner. If the Saints win, they’ll host the championship on Jan. 20. If the Eagles pull off the upset, Dallas or Los Angeles would host.

2. Zeke vs. Gurley

The two best running backs in the NFL (arguably) will go head to head. Gurley finished third in rushing with 1,251 yards and led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns, despite missing the final two games with a knee injury. Gurley was taken 10th overall in the 2015 draft. Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL with 1,434 yards, was taken 4th overall in 2016. The Cowboys’ offensive line will have to find a way to slow down the league’s sack leader Aaron Donald, who had 20.5 sacks as a defensive tackle. Rookie left guard Connor Williams could be tagged for the assignment if Xavier Su’a-Filo isn’t able to go. He’ll be a game-time decision with an injured ankle and even if he’s available it’ll likely be as a bacckup. Next to Donald is Ndamukong Suh, who has 56 sacks and 166 quarterback hits in nine seasons in the league.

3. Pressure Goff, stuff the run

How do you stop the Rams’ offense? Look to the Chicago Bears, who held the Rams to a season-low 214 yards and six points in a loss at Soldier Field on Dec. 9. The Rams (13-3) went 5-3 in the second half of the season, losing at the Saints 45-35 on Nov. 4 and against the Ealges 30-23 on Dec. 16. In their three losses, the Rams had eight turnovers, including six interceptions by Jared Goff. They had 11 total turnovers in their 13 other games and Goff had just six interceptions.

4. Dak runs too

It’s been said and written ad nauseam this season but remains every bit as true. And against the Rams, it should especially be a plan of attack. Dak Prescott showed again last week in the wild card game how potent he can be when he keeps the ball. He doesn’t have to actually make a bunch of called keepers, just give the Rams’ defense the threat early. It helps open up space for his receivers and takes some of the load off of Elliott. The Cowboys are 6-3 when Prescott rushed five or more times in 2018 and 10-3 when he rushed at least six times in his career. He had 29 yards and a touchdown on six carries last week against the Seahawks.

5. Special teams

Tavon Austin showed in the wild card win why the Cowboys traded for him last spring. He returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown but it was called back because of a penalty. Austin later returned a punt 51 yards. It’s something the Cowboys have lacked most of the season with Austin missing nine games with a groin injury. Rookie kicker Brett Maher has been spotty overall (80.6%), but excellent on field goals 50 yards or longer. He’s tied for the league lead with 6 of 7, including a franchise record 62-yarder on Dec. 9. Rams’ veteran Greg Zuerlein missed five games with a groin injury but made 87.1% of his field goals, including a long of 56. He’s made two of 60 yards or longer in his seven-year career.

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Stefan Stevenson has been covering sports for the Star-Telegram since 1997. He spent five years covering TCU athletics, which included two BCS bowls, two trips to the college World Series and the move to the Big 12. He has covered the Texas Rangers since 2014 and started reporting on the Dallas Cowboys in 2016.