Five things to know be­fore tonight’s Rams game

Star-Telegram - - Sports - BY STE­FAN STEVEN­SON ssteven­[email protected]­gram.com

Thank good­ness this game is on Saturday.

The an­tic­i­pa­tion for fans, play­ers and, let’s be hon­est, the me­dia for the di­vi­sional play­off game be­tween the Dal­las Cow­boys and Los An­ge­les Rams has been build­ing all week and by Thurs­day’s last locker room ses­sion, DeMar­cus Lawrence seemed to speak for ev­ery­one: Its’ time to rock and roll.

The Cow­boys and Rams meet at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at the LA Memo­rial Coli­seum for a chance to ad­vance to the NFC Cham­pi­onship game. Just say­ing it out loud is enough to make a long­time Cow­boys fan quiver with ex­cite­ment. Why?Be­cause since Dal­las won its last Su­per Bowl in Jan­uary 1996, the Cow­boys are 0-5 in the di­vi­sional round, in­clud­ing a loss to the Pack­ers at AT&T Sta­dium in 2016 when Dak Prescott and Ezekiel El­liott were rook­ies.

Five things to know when the Cow­boys and Rams kick Saturday night:

1. THE STAKES

In case you need a re­fresher on what Saturday’s game means for the Cow­boys, let us re­view. Dal­las is try­ing to ad­vance to the NFC cham­pi­onship for the first time since Jan­uary 1996. The Cow­boys/Rams win­ner ad­vances to the ti­tle game against the Ea­gles/Saints win­ner. If

the Saints win, they’ll host the cham­pi­onship on Jan. 20. If the Ea­gles pull off the up­set, Dal­las or Los An­ge­les would host.

2. ZEKE VS. GUR­LEY

The two best run­ning backs in the NFL (ar­guably) will go head to head. Gur­ley fin­ished third in rush­ing with 1,251 yards and led the league with 17 rush­ing touch­downs, de­spite miss­ing the fi­nal two games with a knee in­jury. Gur­ley was taken 10th over­all in the 2015 draft. Ezekiel El­liott, who led the NFL with 1,434 yards, was taken 4th over­all in 2016. The Cow­boys’ of­fen­sive line will have to find a way to slow down the league’s sack leader Aaron Don­ald, who had 20.5 sacks as a de­fen­sive tackle. Rookie left guard Con­nor Wil­liams could be tagged for the as­sign­ment if Xavier Su’a-Filo isn’t able to go. He’ll be a game-time de­ci­sion with an in­jured an­kle and even if he’s avail­able it’ll likely be as a bac­ckup. Next to Don­ald is Ndamukong Suh, who has 56 sacks and 166 quar­ter­back hits in nine sea­sons in the league.

3. PRES­SURE GOFF, STUFF THE RUN

How do you stop the Rams’ of­fense? Look to the Chicago Bears, who held the Rams to a sea­son­low 214 yards and six points in a loss at Sol­dier Field on Dec. 9. The Rams (13-3) went 5-3 in the se­cond half of the sea­son, los­ing at the Saints 45-35 on Nov. 4 and against the Ealges 30-23 on Dec. 16. In their three losses, the Rams had eight turnovers, in­clud­ing six in­ter­cep­tions by Jared Goff. They had 11 to­tal turnovers in their 13 other games and Goff had just six in­ter­cep­tions.

4. DAK RUNS TOO

It’s been said and writ­ten ad nau­seam this sea­son but re­mains ev­ery bit as true. And against the Rams, it should es­pe­cially be a plan of at­tack. Dak Prescott showed again last week in the wild card game how po­tent he can be when he keeps the ball. He doesn’t have to ac­tu­ally make a bunch of called keep­ers, just give the Rams’ de­fense the threat early. It helps open up space for his re­ceivers and takes some of the load off of El­liott. The Cow­boys are 6-3 when Prescott rushed five or more times in 2018 and 10-3 when he rushed at least six times in his ca­reer. He had 29 yards and a touch­down on six car­ries last week against the Sea­hawks.

5. SPECIAL TEAMS

Tavon Austin showed in the wild card win why the Cow­boys traded for him last spring. He re­turned a punt 80 yards for a touch­down but it was called back be­cause of a penalty. Austin later re­turned a punt 51 yards. It’s some­thing the Cow­boys have lacked most of the sea­son with Austin miss­ing nine games with a groin in­jury. Rookie kicker Brett Ma­her has been spotty over­all (80.6%), but ex­cel­lent on field goals 50 yards or longer. He’s tied for the league lead with 6 of 7, in­clud­ing a fran­chise record 62-yarder on Dec. 9. Rams’ vet­eran Greg Zuer­lein missed five games with a groin in­jury but made 87.1% of his field goals, in­clud­ing a long of 56. He’s made two of 60 yards or longer in his seven-year ca­reer.

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