Cowboys, Rams both seek long-awaited NFC championship game return

3 min

Dallas looked like a potential juggernaut last week in a 24-22 win over Seattle, with an elite run game that chugged for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 137 of those yards on 26 carries and just the threat of Elliott helped set up every other aspect of the Cowboys’ offense. Consider: In games where Elliott rushed for at least 100 yards this season, Dallas is now 7-1, with seven straight wins.

The emergence of Amari Cooper, acquired via midseason trade, helps the Cowboys stay balanced and gives quarterback Dak Prescott the downfield option he’s needed. Prescott threw for 226 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 22-of-33 passing against Seattle.

Los Angeles’s offense likely won’t struggle to keep up. The Rams are second in the NFL in scoring, averaging 32.9 points per game. Tailback Todd Gurley is averaging 89.4 rushing yards and 41.4 receiving yards per game, but he sat out the last two games of the regular season to rest a sore knee. He’ll return to the lineup alongside quarterback Jared Goff, who’s completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 32 touchdowns and 4,688 yards in Coach Sean McVay’s flashy offense.

The Rams’ defense, especially the front three of Michael Brockers, Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, could prove a difference maker. While the Cowboys try to run the ball with Elliott, those linemen, with 10 Pro Bowl appearances between them, will be Los Angeles’s first line of defense. Linebackers Cory Littleton, Mark Barron and Samson Ebukam have also had standout years.

The teams didn’t play this season, but met in Dallas in October of 2017. The Cowboys had a 24-13 lead late in the first half, but the Rams scored on five consecutive possessions in the second half and won, 35-30.

The Rams haven’t reached an NFC title game since the 2001 season. The Cowboys have waited even longer, since the 1995 season.

When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Eastern.

Where: Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles.

How to watch on TV: Fox.

How to stream online: FOXSportsGo app.

Odds: Rams -7.

What’s next: The winner advances to the NFC championship game on Jan. 20. The winner of this game would host the NFC title game if the Eagles upset the Saints on Sunday. Otherwise, the winner of this game would travel to New Orleans. The Rams lost to both the Saints (on the road) and Eagles (at home) this season. The Cowboys beat the Saints at home and topped the Eagles twice.

Matchup to watch: Rams’ play-action passing game vs. Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith

This is the biggest strength versus strength matchup of the entire weekend. Goff led the NFL with 1,971 yards off play action this season, as the Rams employed it more often than any other team in the league. On those plays, he averaged 10.0 yards per attempt and had a 112.3 passer rating. For the most part, however, play-action exists to attack the area vacated by linebackers who are drawn forward by the run fake, and no team in the NFL has linebackers who can cover more ground than the Cowboys.

Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith finished the regular season as Pro Football Focus’s fifth- and sixth highest-graded linebackers, respectively. Opposing offenses only gained 1,029 yards off play-action against the Cowboys this season, the eighth-lowest total in the NFL. Smith and Vander Esch combined to allow 16 total catches in their coverage this season off play-action, with only seven going for first downs. That sort of stinginess will be necessary to keep the Cowboys in this one. Mike Renner, Pro Football Focus

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