It was an all too familiar ending for the Dallas Cowboys Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
For the 23rd straight year, the Cowboys season ended without a trip to the NFC title game, with a fifth loss in as many attempts to the NFC Divisional playoffs, including the third time since 2014.
Shockingly, the 30-22 season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Rams wasn’t about not having enough firepower to keep up with one of the top-ranked offenses, it was an inability to stop the run.
The Rams used the Cowboys’ own formula to advance to next Sunday’s NFC Title game against the either the New Orleans Saints or the Philadelphia Eagles.
C.J. Anderson had 23 carries for 123 yards. Todd Gurley had 16 carries for 113, Ezekiel Elliott had 47 yards on 20 carries for the Cowboys.
And Rams ran out the clock when linebacker Sean Lee couldn’t stop quarterback Jared Goff on a scramble to get the ball back to the offense.
It’s the first time in Cowboys postseason history that they allowed two backs to top100 yards in the same game. The last time it happened against the Cowboys in the regular season was the final game at Texas Stadium in 2008 by Baltimore’s Leron McClain and Willis McGahee.
The Cowboys, who rallied from a 3-5 start to win the NFC East and a wild card game, head home pondering their future short of the NFC title game again.
Coach Jason Garrett feels good about the way the young team overcame adversity and grew in 2018. But he was still not ready for the finality.
“You put it all out there. We were fortunate to be one of eight teams to be playing this weekend,” Garrett said. “We feel good about where we came this year. We had no plan for any meeting tomorrow. We had a plan to get ready to play in the NFC championship game. You have to regroup when you come in the locker room when you lose. And you move forward.”
Five thoughts from the game:
Prescott comes up short
Things couldn’t have started better for quarterback Dak Prescott.
He had it all cooking on the opening driving, completing three of three passes for 48 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper.
Cooper, playing in the slot, caught a crossing route in stride and raced to the end zone.
However, Prescott and the Cowboys passing floundered for the next two quarters as the Rams stopped the run and dared him to beat them.
Prescott completed five of his next 12 passes through the first drive of the third quarter and nearly threw pick six, if not for a drop by linebacker Samson Ekuban.
The Cowboys were down 23-7 Prescott seemingly came alive again with passes of 27 and 44 yards to receiver Michael Gallup.
The second one gave the Cowboys down at the 2. Elliott scored on a two-yard run and then Prescott hit Cooper for a two-point conversion to make the score 23-15.
Prescott brought the Cowboys back down the field twice.
The first one ended on a 4th and 1 stop of running back Ezekiel Elliott, which the Rams turned into a score and 30-15.
Prescott then converted on a 4th and 1 run on the ensuing drive.
And scored on a 1-yard run to narrow the score to 30-22 but the Cowboys couldn’t get a final stop.
Prescott completed 20 of 32 passes for 266 yards with one touchdown through the air and one on the ground.
But in the end, time ran out on him and the Cowboys.
“He is something else,” Garrett said of Prescott. “He is a great football player and a great leader. Just the way he goes about any situation since I have met him. Inspirational in so many ways. Scratch, claw, fight and a battle. He was going to find some way to give our team a chance. He certainly did. Unfortunately, we unable to do enough.”
“We are a young team,” Prescott said. “We got the right make up of guys to make sure we get back here and get past this round.”
Elliott goes nowhere
The Rams game plan was simple. Stop Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott at all costs.
A Rams run defense that came into the game giving up almost 5 yards a carry, making it seemingly the target of the Cowboys game plan, proved to be an impenetrable force for Elliott.
Elliott had four carries for eight yards in the first quarter. He had five for 32 in the second, largely because of two runs for 12 and 15 yards. But outside of that, he was ineffective. And an ineffective Elliott wrecks the whole philosophy of the Cowboys offense, putting too much pressure and responsibility on quarterback Dak Prescott.
Elliott did have a 1-yard score in the third quarter.
The turning point in the game came on the first play of the fourth quarter when a surging Cowboys team, down 23-15, shunning a possible field goal and went for it on fourth and 1 on Rams 35.
Elliott had converted two fourth downs earlier in the game. But this time he was stuffed by the Rams.
No formula for the Cowboys winning had Elliott rushing 20 times for 47 yards in the game.
That wasn’t good enough.
“They were committed to stopping the run,” Garrett said. “They were going to have a lot of guys around the line of scrimmage. Even when we were in three-wide receiver they stayed in their base. We had to throw them out of that At times we did a good job. At times we didn’t.”
Gashed on the ground
The Cowboys went into the game knowing they needed to stop Rams running back Todd Gurley on the ground.
But it was backup C.J. Anderson, splitting time with Gurley, who gashed the Cowboys defense early. One week after giving up just 73 yards on the ground the Seattle Seahawks, the Rams had 70 yards on the ground in the first quarter and then gained another 100 in the second quarter. Anderson had 78 in the first half, including a 1-yard touchdown run and then Gurley got going, racing 35 yards up the middle to give the Rams a 20-7 lead at halftime.
C.J. Anderson finished with 23 carries for 123 yards. Todd Gurley had 16 carries for 113.
The Cowboys defensive line and linebackers showed little resistance up front.
And an inability to stop the run allowed quarterback Jared Goff to pick his spots in the passing game. It didn’t help the Cowboys pass rush was an even bigger no show than the run defense.
The Cowboys stopped the Rams just twice time through the first three quarters, a missed field goal and a punt, before the final kneel down at the end of the game.
That Sean Lee couldn’t stop quarterback Jared Goff on 3rd and 7 on the final drive proved to be a fitting end.
Defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard said the youth on the Cowboys defense showed against the Rams.
“They are a team that does a lot of shifts and motions,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “They can get your eyes. You have to be locked in and cued in to your keys. That is something that got the best of us tonight.”
Gambling Jason Garrett
In an example of how big this game was, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett shunned his normally conservative style with some swashbuckling gambles.
Garrett set the tone early on the opening drive of the game by going for it on 4th-and-1 from the Rams 49.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for five yards. A 15-yard personal foul penalty was added on, courtesy of cornerback Marcus Peters. Prescott then hit Cooper for the 29-yard score.
With the Cowboys trailing 23-7 in the third quarter, Garrett went with Elliott again on 4th-and-1 from the Rams 41. Prescott ran the option and pitched Elliott for five yards.
Elliott finished the drive with a 1-yard score.
And then Garrett went for two points. A pass from Prescott to Cooper made it 23-15 and a one-score game.
But Garrett may have gone to the well once too many early in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had the momentum after finally getting a stop on defense. On 4th-and-1 at the Rams 35, Elliott ran into a brick wall.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could have been a little more creative than a handoff up the middle to Elliott against a Rams defense expecting an Elliott run.
A Rams touchdown on the ensuing drive made the score 30-15.
Another fourth and 1 was converted by Prescott on the ensuing drive and pass interference in the end zone with 2:43 left but it was too little too late.
“That defense didn’t play that way today,” Elliott of the Rams supposed suspect run defense. “They did a great job stopping the run. The dominated us up front. We didn’t get any movement and we couldn’t get it. You guys kept asking me about stats and 5.1 yards a carry all week and told you it’s playoff football and none of that matters anymore. They came out and played better than us.”
The day after is all too familiar for the Cowboys after the divisional playoffs. For the fourth time since Cowboys last reached in the NFC title game and last won a Super Bowl in 1995, their season ended in the divisional playoff.
Just like in 1996, 2007, 2014 and 2017, the Cowboys couldn’t get over the divisional playoff hump and now will head home to clean out their lockers on Sunday pondering the future.
Should they feel good about what they accomplished in 2018, rallying from 3-5 and being left for dead to win the NFC East and a wildcard playoff game?
Can they build for future off of this season? Or do changes still need to be made, especially with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
“It sucks just being at that locker room,” Prescott said. “Understanding things are not going to be the same. We are going to lose guys. Guys are going to be gone. Sometimes coaches. Right now it’s about spending time with this team. Have team meeting tomorrow and moving forward. It means I got to get back to it again come February and make sure I become a better player and the people around me become better players.”