LOS ANGELES — For all the pomp and points, for all the coveting of Sean McVay’s style, for all the acceptance that the Los Angeles Rams are ushering the NFL into the future, they hadn’t done a basic thing for a transformative team: Win a playoff game. Before the Rams changed the game, they needed to win one that really mattered.
Last season, Year 1 of the McVay revolution, ended with a one-and-done playoff cameo. On Saturday, the Dallas Cowboys came to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with a large following that began chanting “Let’s go Cowboys!” nearly two hours before kickoff. With their run-based, ball-control offense and rejuvenated defense, Dallas seemed a dangerous opponent for the flashy Rams. The potential for a second straight season-ending home playoff loss loomed over Los Angeles and its hype.
But during the Rams’ 30-22 victory over Dallas in the divisional playoff round, they showed not just their style but a level of substance they aren’t given even credit for possessing. Beating the Cowboys requires some smash-mouth ability. And when they needed to, the Rams pushed around their opponent and overpowered them in a manner the Cowboys had become accustomed to doing.
Behind running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, Los Angeles ran over and through Dallas. And when called upon to stop Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott on a critical fourth-and-1 play with 14:52 remaining, the Los Angeles defense was up to the task. By the end of the night, the team with the space-aged style of play had played an entire game with its feet on the ground and looked almost as impressive as it does when wins games on creativity and innovation.
In advancing to the NFC championship game next Sunday against the winner of Sunday’s New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles divisional playoff game, the Rams loosed Anderson for 123 yards and Gurley for 115 as the team ran for 273 against a Dallas defense that had specialized in stopping the run. The backs combined for three touchdowns. Los Angeles also limited Elliott and Dallas’s potent run game to 50 yards and just 2.3 yards per carry.
The physical play, on both sides of the ball, allowed the Rams to win without a dynamic passing performance. Quarterback Jared Goff completed only 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards, and he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. He struggled in the red zone early, failing to get the Rams into the end zone after drives of 11 and 16 plays. But it didn’t matter, not the way the Rams were running the football.
The Rams franchise hadn’t won a playoff game since Jan. 8, 2005, when it was in St. Louis. It hadn’t advanced to a conference title game since 2002.
If you’re talking about success only while based in Los Angeles, it hasn’t been this far since 1990, when it lost 30-3 to San Francisco in the NFC title game.
The Rams rushed for 170 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry in the first half alone. During the regular season, the Cowboys ranked fifth in the NFL in run defense, and they had allowed just four backs to run for 70 or more yards in a game. Gurley and Anderson accomplished that in the first 30 minutes.
Gurley, the most dynamic player on the Los Angeles offense, had 80 rushing yards by halftime. His performance included an electrifying 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. But Anderson, who had 78 yards at intermission, set the tone early, rumbling through huge holes and breaking tackles easily with his 5-foot-8, 225-pound bowling ball frame. It was as if the two tailbacks were performing their own rugged rendition of the “Anything You Can Do” duet.
In the days leading up to the game, Gurley’s health had been a major story line. A knee injury had forced him to miss the final two games of the regular season and yield the rushing title to Elliott. After making it through an entire practice Thursday and declaring himself ready, Gurley still needed time to get loose on Saturday. He rode an exercise bike often when on the sideline, and early on he watched Anderson destroy the Cowboys.
Anderson had run for 167 and 132 yards in the two games Gurley missed. He joined the Rams in mid-December as an injury fill-in with low expectations, having been cut by Carolina and Oakland during the season. Now, he’s another weapon for a team blessed with plenty of offense.