The Dallas Cowboys have been here before, not as often as they’d like, but they’ve been here before. Three times in the last 10 years, the Cowboys have gone to the Divisional round of the playoffs, and they’ve lost all three games.
There has been a poorly played game (Minnesota in 2009), there has been a horrible fumble and a ridiculous rule game (thanks DeMarco Murray and #DezCaughtIt in Green Bay in 2014), and finally, just a terrible luck game (Aaron Rodgers’ improbable throw in 2016). If it hasn’t been one thing, it’s been something else to keep the Cowboys from an NFC Championship appearance. Since their last title game showing, Dallas is one of three NFC teams who hasn’t made the NFC Championship game, along with the Lions and Redskins.
As the kids say, ugh.
The organization can change all that with a win on Saturday night against the Rams. It won’t be easy, but the blueprint is there. In fact, the Cowboys had it last year and were ready to beat an upstart Rams team, but an ill-fated play cost the Cowboys the game, and it felt like the play that ruined the season.
With Dallas up 17-6 and about to get the ball back, Ryan Switzer fumbled a punt in Dallas territory that the Rams recovered. Five plays later, Jared Goff hit Cooper Kupp for a touchdown and the Rams had life again. The Cowboys scored on the next possession, which means they could have put the game away if Switzer didn’t fumble. Dallas’ offense scored on all four of their 1st half possessions before faltering in the second half.
It was in the last 30 minutes where the Rams’ offense took control and they did it by attacking a gimpy Jaylon Smith. Sean Lee was out for the game and Smith was pressed into action before he was ready. Sean McVay attacked the middle of the field where Smith was overmatched.
The Rams wound up holding on for the win that day after the Cowboys were close to completing a comeback. An awful holding call on Travis Frederick negated a successful two-point conversion that would’ve tied the game in the fourth quarter and the comeback fell short.
That was then, this is now. However, the game plan hasn’t changed.
The Cowboys still need to run the ball against a Rams defense that struggles to stop it, just as they did last year. Ezekiel Elliott should be able to tear up a defense that allows a league-high 5.1 yards-per-carry. In the last meeting, Elliott was killing the Rams on the ground until the Cowboys got behind on the scoreboard. Dallas wants the offense to stay on the field, sustain drives and tire out a Wade Phillips defense that loves to be aggressive and attack the quarterback.
Keeping the Cowboys’ offense on the field also means the explosive Los Angeles offense stays on the sideline. Winning the time of possession battle in this game is critical for the Cowboys if they want to beat the Rams. Todd Gurley, Goff and the rest of the offense can’t do damage if they aren’t on the field.
Things are different on the defensive side of the ball for the Cowboys this time around, though. It’s going to be much harder to attack this version of Dallas’ defense, a unit playing at a very high level.
Try picking on Smith in this game and you do so at your own risk. Smith’s had a Pro Bowl type of season and he’s got help now with Leighton Vander Esch, who is an All-Pro, in the middle of the field.
Dallas’ defense is also much more equipped in the secondary with Byron Jones’ presence and because of Chido Awuzie’s improved play late in the year. Throw in a pass rush that now has Randy Gregory to bookend DeMarcus Lawrence, and it’s a better group than the one that had trouble slowing down Goff, Gurley, and company last season.
The Rams are a good team, you don’t go 13-3 without being one of the best in the league. However, the Cowboys have the tools to beat the NFC West champs. A strong running game that can help control the clock, a quarterback who makes timely plays, a defense that is playing well and a possible home-field advantage could all equal a Dallas victory.
If the Cowboys can execute their game plan, they will be making their first trip to the NFC Championship game in 23 years. It won’t be easy, but it’s there for the taking.
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