Players to watch: Cowboys vs. Rams
When the Dallas Cowboys take the field at the historic Los Angeles Coliseum against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Divisional playoffs Saturday night they will try to go back to the future.
They will try to reach the NFC title game for the first time in 23 years by using an old school approach.
It has always made this divisional playoff game a battle for the heart and future of the NFL.
It’s the new age, space age Rams and their high-octane, pass-happy offense versus the stone age Cowboys and their run-oriented, ball-control attack that was the foundation of their three Super Bowl title teams of the 1990s, the last of which came in 1995.
More importantly, while the Rams are led by the fun and fan-friendly offense that averages 32.9 points per game, the Cowboys got here because of a dominant defense that stops the run, gets after the quarterback and limits big plays.
Are the Rams and their style the wave of the future, as was billed when they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 during the regular season?
Or can you still win in the NFL running the ball and playing good defense?
“It can win,” FOX NFL analyst Troy Aikman said about the Cowboys style. “The formula for playing great defense and running the ball and controlling the line of scrimmage, not making mistakes, that formula has won a lot of football games in the history of our sport. And it has continued to win football games.
“Everybody says defense wins championships and I think in a lot of cases that is accurate. I have always pulled back from that a little bit that you have got to have offense, especially in today’s game. But I think what we have seen this year that when it’s been great offense versus great defense the great defense more times than not has prevailed.
“I am anxious to see how this game goes Saturday night with what I think is the best defense left in the playoffs and a real explosive offense when they are playing and hitting on all cylinders.”
All of the NFL is anxiously waiting because it is a copy cat league to its core. And right now, everyone is trying to emulate the Rams and head coach Sean McVay.
Two head coaches have been hired this offseason because of their relationship or connection to McVay, including Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals and Mike LaFleur of the Green Bay Packers. And the Cincinnati Bengals are reportedly set to hire Rams offensive coordinator Zac Taylor as soon as he’s finished in the playoffs.
“I think, really, what it is more than anything else is, it’s a reflection of our organizational success over the last couple years,” McVay said of team’s trying to copy him. ”I think it’s certainly flattering. It’s extremely humbling to even be mentioned in that.
“I know the Rams are having success because we’ve got great players, we’ve got a great coaching staff and we’ve got a lot of people that are working in the same direction. I think that’s key for continuity in anything that you do. But, it certainly is very flattering and it’s a reflection of the Rams’ success.”
For all the Rams’ so-called success under McVay, they have yet to win a playoff game. They were one and done last year and are facing the Cowboys after having a first-round bye.
If the Cowboys send them packing over the weekend, might teams be copying the wrong formula?
“I think there is more pressure on Sean McVay,” Aikman said. “If they lose this game in the first game of their playoff season that would be a huge disappointment, huge upset.”
That is certainly what the Cowboys are counting on.
They believe they gave a glimpse of the future with 13-10 victory against the New Orleans Saints in November. The Saints finished the season third in scoring. But before facing the Cowboys they were No. 1 and had scored 40 points or more six games, including 44 or more in the previous four games.
The Cowboys shut them down, validating the point that defense still wins and, hopefully, can carry them in the playoffs.
The Cowboys finished the season ranked seventh in the league in total defense and have the best defense left in the playoffs.
The Rams led by quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley and a host of game-breaking wide receivers in Brandon Cooks and Robert Woods are the next challenge.
“Growing up, that’s one of the first things my dad told me, defense wins championships,” Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “Absolutely, I think we can take it all the way with this defense.”
The key for the Cowboys is stopping Gurley on the ground and then getting after Goff.
“He’s a quarterback. I don’t like quarterbacks,” Lawrence said. “My impression is the same. I go into every week wanting to take the quarterback’s soul.”
The Cowboys also believe they have the right balance on offense with quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott to control the ball and keep the Rams offense off the field.
Elliott led the league in rushing and Rams defense is giving up almost five yards per carry.
“If you look at our team, if you look at the way they built this team, we were built to play that type of ball,” Elliott said.
Prescott added: “Of course our style can win, throwback or not. We’re going to get it done. That’s what we do. We’re not worried about a style or how somebody’s doing something.”
When the Cowboys talk about getting it done, it’s not just about doing it against the Rams. They believe their style, which also contrasts the Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles, the two possible opponents for the NFC title game, can take them all the way to the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years.
”Defense comes up big in the playoffs,” Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones said. “It’s a different type of brand of football, and I think the fact that we’re playing at a high level really is an advantage to us. You throw in the fact that we can possess the ball. I think it will come up big when we play the high powered offenses that are left in the NFC, whether it’s the Rams, the Saints, or the Eagles.
“If we can possess the ball more than the other team, I think it’s frustrating for the other team. And then when they finally do get it, to have to go up against a quality defense makes it difficult.
“So, I think it’s a huge plus for us and the type of football team we have,” he said.
Stone age or space age?