Watching the NFL’s best teams go head to head is what makes postseason football great. This weekend’s divisional round exemplifies that with an explosive matchup between the Los Angeles Rams dynamic offense against a stout Dallas Cowboys defense whose accomplishments include beating the Saints and ending Seattle’s postseason bid on Sunday.
Dallas held the Seattle run-first attack to just 73 yards on 24 carries after the Seahawks ran for a league-leading 160 yards per game during the regular season.
That defense is a big reason the Cowboys could very well force their way to the NFC Championship after starting off the season 3-5 through their first eight games.
All they have to do is beat the Rams on Saturday.
It won’t be easy. The Rams were one of the best teams in football this season, going 13-3 and winning the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Los Angeles owns both one of the best passing offenses in the game (fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric) and arguably the top rushing offense in the game (first in DVOA).
Los Angeles and Dallas will feature one of the things that we love during the postseason: a great offense taking on a great defense. So which one has the advantage?
Dallas’ defense is good enough to keep them in the game
Dallas’ defense is the strongest unit on their team. For the regular season, Dallas’ defense ranked sixth in opposing points per game, allowing 20.3 points per game and ranked 11th in opposing yards per play with 5.4 yards per play allowed.
Here’s what Bill Connelly had to say about the Cowboys’ defense when profiling the biggest strength for every team in the playoffs.
Until Sunday’s strange and mostly meaningless Week 17 shootout with the Giants, Dallas hadn’t allowed more than 28 points in a game all year. Against playoff teams, they allowed just 19.8 points per game. Granted, they also only scored 16.3 points per game against playoff teams, but still.
They defend the run well (which should come in handy against wildcard opponent Seattle), they prevent big pass plays (which will get significantly tested against the Seahawks), and they’re excellent in the red zone (eighth in points allowed per scoring opportunities). They likely won’t get too far because of their inefficient offense, but they’re going to be a tough out.
Dallas has great defensive players at every level of their defense. On the defensive line, they have Demarcus Lawrence, at the linebacker spots they have rookie Leighton Vander Esch and third year pro Jaylon Smith, and in the secondary they have cornerback Byron Jones who was named second team All-Pro.
The Cowboys defense is stout against the run, giving up just 3.8 yards per carry during the regular season — according to Pro Football Reference. Demarcus Lawrence had 15 tackles for loss this season, which was good for 11th in the NFL among all defensive players. Their run defense helped them out tremendously in the red zone as well, where they only only allowed 51 percent of their opponents’ red zone trips to end with a touchdown, seventh in the league.
Of course, it’s a passing league and Dallas is no slouch in that area either. The pass defense isn’t as dominant as the run defense, but they only allowed 4.1 percent of their opposing passing attempts to result in a touchdown, which ranked ninth among all defenses during the regular season.
Their well-rounded defensive approach should help them combat the Rams’ offense.
That Rams offense is still pretty, pretty good though
For the second year in a row, Sean McVay’s offense has been almost unstoppable ... in the regular season.
Jared Goff threw for 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, Todd Gurley chipped in 21 total touchdowns, and the Rams averaged 32.5 points per game this season, which was good for second in the league.
Los Angeles ranked first in open play success rate, third in big play rate, and first in third down success rate according to Bill Connelly’s advanced statistics.
The Rams started the season on fire going 8-0 before stumbling through the back half of the season with a 5-3 record. The performance during the second half of their season shouldn’t concern Rams’ fans too much — this is still one of the elite offenses the game has to offer.
When the Rams were going through their late season offensive rut, the passing game is what really struggled. Jared Goff threw seven interceptions over the final eight games of the regular season compared to just five over the first eight games. Goff’s yards per attempt also dropped from 9.6 to 7.4.
That difference of 2.2 yards per attempt is massive — that’s the difference between Patrick Mahomes (8.8 YPA, second in the NFL) and Case Keenum (6.6 YPA, 29th in the NFL).
Even with those struggles in the second half of the season, the Rams were still able to average 28.5 points per game, which would’ve been fourth in the league if it lasted for the entire season. They did seem to get back on track against the Cardinals in a 48-32 win in Week 16, but the Cardinals were arguably the worst team in the league this season. The starters got the week off after that game, so we still don’t know if Goff and Co. are capable of slinging the ball well again or if they just took advantage of one-sided matchup.
Even with that question lingering, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Robert Woods, and the Rams’ offensive line are a lot to throw at any team. Last time the Cowboys and the Rams played, in Week 4 last season, the Cowboys defense felt the wrath of a fully operational Death Star (aka Todd Gurley at his best).
Dallas has some revenge to cash in
When Dallas and Los Angeles met in 2017, it was a shootout. Todd Gurley ran for 121 yards and chipped in an extra 94 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in the passing game.
Gurley also hurdled a defender in that game!
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had big performances too. Prescott threw for 252 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, while Elliott ran for 85 yards and a score on 21 carries.
The Rams ended up winning the game 35-30.
Dallas only gave up 30 points one time this year — a 36-35 Week 17 victory against the New York Giants — but they were resting some of their starters to get ready for the playoffs. Lawrence only played 11 snaps, Leighton Vander Esch only played 36 snaps, and Tyrone Crawford was inactive.
Sean McVay and the Rams’ offense is still formidable, but this is a much better Cowboys defense from a year ago.
Aaron Donald is a one man wrecking crew
While the Cowboys defense has great players at each level of their defense, the Rams have the best defensive player in the game.
As a defensive tackle, Aaron Donald had an INSANE 20.5 sacks that will likely lead him to Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second year in a row.
He can win with power, speed, quickness, technique — he’s legitimately one of the greatest defensive players in the game and singlehandedly holding the Rams’ defense together.
Just watch how fast he knifes through the Vikings offensive line. It looks like he teleported to Kirk Cousins.
Finding him on each play won’t be hard, and drawing up plays to block him won’t be hard. However, actually executing those blocks will be difficult, even with a first team All-Pro offensive guard like Zack Martin.
The matchup in the trenches is likely to decide the outcome of this game. If Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, and company can get penetration in the run game and pressure on Dak Prescott, that will greatly increase their chances of victory.
If the Cowboys can stand strong against the Rams defensive line, they’ll have a chance to put some points on the board against the Rams’ defense an potentially keep pace. But in order to do that, Dallas’ defense will have to do what it’s been doing all season — shutting down opposing offenses.
The playoffs have been pretty weird to this point. Both six seeds have won and the Eagles beat the Bears in dramatic fashion as Cody Parkey’s last second, game winning field goal attempt double doinked off the uprights and landed on the ground. Dallas winning this game wouldn’t even be close to the strangest event that’s happened in this young postseason.
Dallas and Los Angeles have playmakers littered on both sides of the ball. It should be great game to take us into the NFC Championship and it will all start with the big boys up front.