Players to watch: Cowboys vs. Rams
Cowboys: Dak Prescott has been better than Rams QB Jared Goff since they came into the league. He has more wins. He has more comeback victories. And now he is going to be back to where he made his NFL debut. Prescott is ready for his moment.
Rams: Goff has a lot to prove in his first playoff game, especially after a late-season slump that included a three-week stretch that resulted in just one touchdown with six interceptions. Through the first 11 weeks of the season, Goff was the NFL’s 3rd-highest-rated passer (113.5). In the final six weeks, though, he ranked 25th (74.8).
Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott should head into the game with a little extra motivation. He led the NFL with 1,434 yards on 304 carries but it was Todd Gurley of the Rams who was named first team all-pro. Elliott is going to need a signature performance as a runner, receiver and chain mover to control the clock and put the Cowboy over the top.
Rams: Gurley has the mantle right now as the league’s best back for his abilities as a runner and receiver. He scored a league-high 21 touchdowns. But he has been sidelined for four weeks with a sprained knee. He could be a little rusty. Look for C.J. Anderson to get some carries to take some pressure of Gurley.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Cowboys: Dallas comes into the game hobbled with slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Blake Jarwin nursing high ankle sprains. Both are expected to play but they won’t be 100 percent. That puts pressure on Tavon Austin to step up in the slot and Amari Cooper to be a game-breaker and chain mover.
Rams: LA is not the same outside without Cooper Kupp. But no one is crying for Goff. Receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are big time downfield threats. Both had over 1,200 yards receiving. Josh Reynolds has filled in for Kupp.
Cowboys: Dallas is regaining some bodies up front with guard Xavier Su’a-Fila ready to go after missing the wild-card game with a sprained ankle. Will the Cowboys start him or rookie Connor Williams at LG to face DT Aaron Donald? Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith and Pro Bowl RG Zack Martin will need to regain their dominance.
Rams: The Rams offensive line has been the picture of health and continuity. All five starters have started in every game this season. They are the reason the running game showed no let up when Anderson replaced an injured Gurley. The Rams are led up front by left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Rob Havenstein. Both are among the best at what they do in the league. But they are going to have their hands full with DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory.
Cowboys: Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence sets the tone for this group up front and is a relentless force as a rusher and run-stopper. He and DE Randy Gregory will have to win in a hurry against the Rams because Goff gets the ball out of hands so quickly. Tackles Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins will have to stop the run first.
Rams: Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a leading candidate for MVP. He led the league with 20.5 sacks. He will be a handful for Su’a–Fila or Williams. But he is the lone star up front. Donald is flanked on the line by ends Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers. They are big-time names, but not always productive. The Rams give up almost 5 yards per carry on the ground. Elliott will try to gash them.
Cowboys: Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith will have to get it done against the Rams as forces in the run game and possibly covering Gurley out of the backfield on passing downs. The Rams are the best play-action team in the league and these aggressive youngsters will have to read their keys and be patient. The twosome combined for 262 tackles in 2018.
Rams: The Rams linebackers are the weak link on the team. Again, they are part of the reason why the defense gives up almost 5 yards per carry against the run. Cory Littleton is the best of the bunch with a team-leading 125 tackles. Mark Barron is the biggest name, but the former Alabama star is a converted safety.
Cowboys: It’s all hands on deck for the Cowboys cornerbacks. Chido Awuzie, Byron Jones, Anthony Browns and Jordan Lewis will all see action. There is a good chance Brown or Lewis might be assigned with covering Gurley out of the backfield. The key for others is not to give up any big plays. The Cowboys gave up the second-fewest in the league, though they did get burned four times by the Seahawks.
Rams: The Rams have big-name cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aquib Talib. But they are also susceptible to the big play. Both gamble a lot, which should play right into the hands of route-running specialist Cooper. Nickell Robey-Coleman is a solid slot corner who must be up to the task against a hobbled Beasley.
Cowboys: Austin heads into this game with the momentum of his big performance in the wild-card and motivation to make his former team pay. He is an x-factor for the Cowboys. But concern remains for kicker Brett Maher, who missed a kick in the wild-card game and is less than automatic from under 40 yards, despite making 29 of 36 field goals this season. Do you trust him?
Rams: The Rams don’t have much of a return game. But they haven’t really needed one with their high powered offense. But they do a kicker they can trust in Greg Zuerlein, who made 27 of 31 field goals in 2018. Punter Johnny Hecker is as than solid as anyone in the league, averaging 46.3 an attempt.
Cowboys: Jason Garrett gets credit for getting into the playoffs and winning a wild-card game after a 3-5 start to the season. But he is hoping to become the first Cowboys coach to advance past the divisional game for the time since Barry Switzer in 1995.
Rams: Sean McVay is the coach everyone wants or at least wants someone like. Two teams have already hired coaches connected to McVay and his offensive coordinator is expected to get the Bengals job. McVay is the new normal in the NFL. But he has yet to win a playoff game. Will he get the first of many on Saturday?
Cowboys: The Cowboys were good on the road in the second half of the season, winning three of their last four away from home. But this will not be a true road game. The Cowboys have long had a huge presence in Southern California and half the stadium could be filled with Cowboys fans.
Rams: The Rams didn’t handle the bye well last year and got beat by the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional playoffs. Will they be rusty again? WilL Gurley be rusty after sitting out four weeks. And can Goff regain his magic? The high-flying Rams come into the game with questions.