When the Cowboys have the ball: Dak Prescott has earned a reputation for coming through in big moments, even if he has been uneven at times as a thrower. It will be interesting to see how he handles things here, even against a Rams defense that doesn’t clamp down in coverage. WR Allen Hurns is out, and Cole Beasley is dealing with an ankle injury. Maybe the young tight ends, including Blake Jarwin, can step up.
But as Dallas goes, it falls on the shoulders of RB Ezekiel Elliott. Backs have gashed Los Angeles for 4.9 yards per carry and 12 TDs this season, but they’ve been less effective in the passing game vs. this defense. Elliott’s receiving ability has been a sneaky-big part of this offense, especially when Prescott is hurried.
There are a few matchups worth the price of admission. The first is old friend Amari Cooper going up against Marcus Peters (and Aqib Talib). Trades have brought the old AFC West rivals together again, and they’ve traded off dominant performances against each other when they were with the Raiders and Chiefs (and Broncos), respectively. Peters has had a down season battling injuries, and Talib just returned to the lineup in December, but Cooper has sparked the Dallas offense tremendously.
The other is Cowboys OG Zack Martin vs. Rams DL Aaron Donald, a get-your-popcorn battle in the trenches. They’re two of the best at what they do. The Rams have 41 sacks — half from Donald — and are predicated on big plays defensively. They’ll give up chunks of yards but balance it out with sacks, turnovers and red-zone stops. Prescott and this Cowboys O-line have shrunk vs. good interior pressure.
When the Rams have the ball: QB Jared Goff seemed to get his timing back late in the season after a tough stretch when pressure really seemed to get to him. Head coach Sean McVay did him a favor by using more tight ends and fewer five-man protections, and it led to fewer mistakes down the stretch, albeit vs. a few lesser defenses.
The Cowboys’ unit is strong against the run and has a good group of pressure players up front, so this Rams O-line must give Goff time. Like the Donald-Martin matchup, another good one here is LT Andrew Whitworth vs. Cowboys DEs Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory.
The Rams like to let their pass patterns develop, and though things haven’t been as smooth since WR Cooper Kupp went down for the year, they still have ample weapons with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods leading the way. The Cowboys’ secondary is big and athletic, but sometimes their ball recognition prevents them from making more turnovers.
Containing RB Todd Gurley is crucial. The Cowboys’ stout run defense might do its job vs. Gurley on the ground, but can they bottle him up as a receiver the way Dallas did against the Saints’ Alvin Kamara? That might be the difference.
Special teams: The Rams have pretty strong special teams all around, now that their kicking situation has settled down a bit. But their weakness is on the coverage units, and remember what Tavon Austin did last week — two long returns, with one called back — despite not being fully healthy. Cowboys rookie K Brett Maher has answered the bell with some big kicks.
Coaching: McVay has had an extra week to prep, but the Cowboys will have an interesting edge with defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard having faced McVay twice last season and being familiar with the Rams’ concepts and pace. Head coach Jason Garrett doesn’t have a great postseason mark, but then again McVay is 0-1 in the playoffs to date.
Prediction: The Rams might have some shaky moments in this one, but they should have just enough firepower to outlast the Cowboys. Prescott will have chances to get out of the pocket and create, but he also will be susceptible to some hits in this one. One or two turnovers could tilt this game.
Rams 28, Cowboys 20