Will the time off hurt the Rams as they take on the Cowboys?
The Dallas Cowboys head west to take on the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Dallas lost at home to Los Angeles last year 35-30 in a fantastic meeting between the two teams. In that one, both squads found success running the ball with Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott chewing up yards. The difference was the two turnovers that the home team had. Dallas has actually won two of the last three road meetings in this series but is 3-5 away from home this season.
The Cowboys' defense was fantastic once again last week although a questionable game plan by Seattle helped. The Cowboys limited the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense to just 73 yards on 24 carries, less than half of the Seahawks' seasonal average (160 ypg). I continue to believe that Dallas' defense doesn't get enough respect for its performance this season. Much of the talk from last week was about Dak Prescott's runs in the crucial final drive. Prescott did just enough to help the Cowboys get the win, but he'll have to play better on Saturday.
The Rams enter this one having won two in a row right after losing back-to-back games. Those two losses came against a pair of playoff teams in Chicago (road) and Philadelphia ((home), but they were able to turn things around and find their rhythm in blowing out the Cardinals and 49ers to close the regular season. It will be interesting to see how healthy Gurley is after missing the last two games with a knee injury. C.J. Anderson looked good in Gurley's absence, but that was against Arizona and San Francisco, not the league's fifth-ranked rushing defense. Los Angeles' defense also will have to play better.
NFC Divisional Playoff: Dallas at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -7
Three Things to Watch
Even though we are in the playoffs, there are still some things to consider. The Rams are obviously coming off a week off although most of their key players, outside of Todd Gurley, played in the Week 17 win over San Francisco. It also will be very interesting to see how much of a presence Dallas fans have in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. When Philadelphia faced the Rams in Week 15, there were times during that game when the stadium got loud cheering for the road team. The Cowboys have played just three true road games since the middle of November. Although there should be no travel issues other than the fact that they will have one less day to prepare for this compared to a typical Sunday game.
2. Gurley vs. Elliott
Gurley practiced on Wednesday for the first time since Week 15. He's been dealing with a knee injury and hasn't really looked right for a while. He totaled just 76 rushing yards on 23 carries in the losses to the Bears and Eagles. Even if he's not his usual self as a runner, he should still be able to contribute in the passing game (13 combined receptions in those two games). That could be key since Dallas has been solid against the run all season (94.6 ypg). The Cowboys' young linebacker duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith has really emerged.
On the other side, Ezekiel Elliott should find a little bit more room to run. The Rams have allowed more than 100 yards on the ground in each of their last five games. The front line is filled with star power, but the linebacking group doesn't exactly scare anyone. Elliott averaged 5.3 yards per carry in last week's win over Seattle and he's at his best when he's getting a good lather. I think one of the ways that Dallas wins this game is if it doesn't become a fast-break game, which makes it easier for the Cowboys to keep time of possession in their favor. The fewer possessions the Rams get the fewer opportunities Gurley, Jared Goff and company have to score.
3. Dak Prescott
Prescott is coming off a solid effort vs. Seattle in which he threw for one touchdown and ran for another. Prescott finished the regular season with 22 TD passes to eight interceptions, but the jury is still out on whether he can make winning plays when it matters most. I really think he gained some confidence through his four-touchdown performance in the Week 17 win over the Giants. Most people thought it was odd that he even played in that game at all since there was nothing at stake.
Prescott's numbers have gotten better since Amari Cooper's arrival although the wide receiver has cooled off immensely after breaking out early. Cooper has just 189 receiving yards over the last four games. The Rams have plenty of star power in their secondary, starting with cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. Lamarcus Joyner is a pretty solid safety but he's not 100 percent healthy right now. Similar to Gurley, the hope is that the time off helped him recover. Talib also dealt with injuries during the regular season, while Peters was a disappointment by and large. Now is the time for them to shine, especially when matched up one-on-one against Cooper.
Despite winning the final two games, I'm still not a huge believer in the Rams. Jared Goff looked a little shaky at times over that last month and no one can say for sure how healthy Todd Gurley will be. Dallas' defense is really peaking at the right time, even if the unit hasn't gotten the respect it probably should. Cowboys fans that make the trip to Los Angeles will have a party as I think Ezekiel Elliott runs for two touchdowns and Dallas moves on to the NFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Rams 21
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.