Look­ing for a break­through

Kingston Whig-Standard - - SPORTS - GREG BEACHAM

LOS AN­GE­LES — As if the pres­sure of play­ing for the Los An­ge­les Rams’ first play­off victory in 14 years wasn’t enough, Todd Gur­ley car­ries an ex­tra im­per­a­tive into the Coli­seum on Sat­ur­day night.

“Ba­si­cally, ev­ery­body I know hates the Cow­boys,” the Rams’ Al­lPro run­ning back said. “They’ve been hit­ting me up all week, so I’ve got to try to take care of busi­ness for those guys.”

And then there’s Wade Phillips, the 71-year-old Los An­ge­les de­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor who was fired as Dal­las head coach in 2010 and re­placed by his as­sis­tant, Ja­son Gar­rett. With a straight face, Phillips calls the di­vi­sional play­off show­down “a re­venge game for me.”

The Cow­boys (11-6) in­spire strong feel­ings across the foot­ball world, but these Rams (13-3) are just jok­ing around. Their abil­ity to do so in­di­cates they’re not feel­ing crushed by the ex­tra­or­di­nary weight on both teams in this matchup un­der the Hol­ly­wood spot­light.

A trip to the NFC cham­pi­onship game is more than enough mo­ti­va­tion for two fran­chises that haven’t been that close to a Su­per Bowl in many years.

“It’s a prime-time game in the play­offs,” Gur­ley said. “What bet­ter game would you want? Play­off game in LA ver­sus Amer­ica’s Team. It’s go­ing to be a great matchup.”

Dal­las has won three play­off games in 22 years, and it hasn’t won a road play­off game since Jan­uary 1993. The Cow­boys haven’t reached the NFC ti­tle game since the 1995 sea­son, los­ing five straight times in the di­vi­sional round.

“Yeah, it would mean a lot,” Dal­las quar­ter­back Dak Prescott said. “And more than what it means for the past, but be­cause of this group of guys that I’m go­ing to do it with. Just sim­ply how we’ve been able to per­se­vere (through) all the ad­ver­sity and ev­ery­thing that we’ve been through to­gether, off the field, on the field. I just know we’ve got the right guys to do it.”

The Rams haven’t been in a con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game since the 2001-02 sea­son, and they only ended a 12-year play­off drought last Jan­uary with a home loss to At­lanta in the wild-card round. Coach Sean McVay’s in­cred­i­ble turn­around of his fran­chise has in­spired a wave of copy­cat coach­ing hires across the NFL this month, but McVay knows it doesn’t mean much with­out his first play­off victory.

The matchup also show­cases two of the best young quar­ter back run­ning back com­bi­na­tion sin the league. Prescott and Ezekiel El­liott are the heart of a team that has won eight of its last nine games since trad­ing for re­ceiver Amari Cooper, capped by Dal­las’ gritty victory over Seat­tle last week in the wild­card round.

Jared Goff and Gur­ley make it hap­pen for the Rams, who rolled to an 11-1 record with a nearly un­stop­pable of­fence. Losses to the Bears and Eagles in De­cem­ber raised ques­tions about their run de­fence and of­fen­sive line, but McVay’s team is rested and de­ter­mined to make a Su­per Bowl run.

“I think there’s a con­fi­dence that’s been earned,” McVay said. “We have a lot of re­spect for the Dal­las Cow­boys, but we ex­pect to win this game. We know it’s go­ing to take a great ef­fort, but we’re go­ing in with the mind­set and men­tal­ity that we ex­pect to win. I think that con­fi­dence is some­thing that’s been earned ev­ery day by our play­ers, and then we’ve got to go out and prove it.”

Here are more things to watch in these NFC main­stays’ ninth play­off meet­ing — the most in NFL his­tory — but their first since Jan­uary 1986 in Ana­heim:

GUR­LEY GOES

The matchup will be a show­case for ar­guably the NFL’s top two run­ning backs — as long as Gur­ley’s balky knee is good. Gur­ley hasn’t played since Dec. 16, but McVay has seemed cer­tain he’ll have his of­fen­sive cen­ter­piece at full strength. Gur­ley fin­ished third in the NFL rush­ing race be­hind El­liott, who won his sec­ond ti­tle in three years. Gur­ley hes­i­tated to say whether he’ll be lim­ited, but backup C.J. Anderson had two huge games in his ab­sence.

ANKLE IS­SUES

Dal­las re­ceiver Cole Beasley and tight end Blake Jar­win didn’t prac­tice all week be­cause of ankle in­juries. Beasley was limp­ing badly at times against Seat­tle. Jar­win, who had three touch­down catches in the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale against the New York Giants, was get­ting more play­ing time be­cause of a sea­son-end­ing in­jury to Ge­off Swaim. Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo re­turned to prac­tice af­ter sit­ting against the Sea­hawks with an ankle in­jury. If the UCLA prod­uct is able to play, Dal­las will have to de­cide be­tween him and rookie Con­nor Wil­liams at left guard.

GOFF’S SHOUL­DERS

Goff will be tested by Dal­las’ de­fence, which has one of the NFL’s best col­lec­tions of lineback­ers and backs. The Pro Bowl quar­ter­back’s pro­duc­tion and ef­fec­tive­ness slipped in De­cem­ber when op­po­nents in­creas­ingly re­fused to bite on McVay’s play-ac­tion schemes, and Dal­las’ de­fence also has enough tal­ented pass rush­ers to ap­ply pres­sure. Goff re­al­izes he’ll be judged on his abil­ity to an­swer the chal­lenge. “Win­ning is the most im­por­tant stat, and that’s no dif­fer­ent in the play­offs,” he said.

SOME QB HATE

Speak­ing of Goff, Cow­boys de­fen­sive end DeMar­cus Lawrence had a lit­tle fun when asked his im­pres­sions of his fel­low Pro Bowler: “He’s a quar­ter­back. I don’t like quar­ter­backs.” Lawrence had his sec­ond straight dou­ble-digit sea­son in sacks with 101/2, but he fin­ished well be­hind the NFL leader, Los An­ge­les All-Pro Aaron Don­ald (201/2).

RAMS REINFORCEMENTS

Af­ter last Jan­uary’s loss to the Fal­cons, the Rams bol­stered their de­fence with three promi­nent vet­er­ans ea­ger for post-sea­son suc­cess. De­fen­sive tackle Ndamukong Suh is hop­ing for his first play­off victory af­ter go­ing 0-3 with Detroit and Mi­ami, while cor­ner­back Mar­cus Peters will at­tempt to reach his first con­fer­ence ti­tle game af­ter los­ing his last three play­off games with Kansas City. Cor­ner­back Aqib Talib won a Su­per Bowl ring with Den­ver, and he feels a sim­i­lar vibe in the Rams’ locker room.

“Ev­ery­body knows it, so I don’t have to tell them,” Talib said. “If you want (your team) to be pop­u­lar and get your name out there, make a cou­ple of plays in the play­offs.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

At left, Los An­ge­les Rams quar­ter­back Jared Goff car­ries the ball dur­ing a Dec. 16 game against the Philadel­phia Eagles. At right, Dal­las Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott scram­bles against the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins on Nov. 22. The Rams and Cow­boys meet in a di­vi­sional play­off game on Sat­ur­day.

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