Rams, Cow­boys aim to break through

The Bradenton Herald - - Sports - BY GREG BEACHAM

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’ All-Pro 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 co­or­di­na­tor 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 200102 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 quar­ter­back-run­ning back com­bi­na­tions in 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 wild-card round.

Jared Goff and Gur­ley make it hap­pen for the Rams, who rolled to an 11-1 record with a nearly un­stop­pable of­fense. Losses to the Bears and Ea­gles in De­cem­ber raised ques­tions about their run de­fense 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.

GOFF’S SHOUL­DERS: Goff will be tested by Dal­las’ de­fense, 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 play­ac­tion schemes, and Dal­las’ de­fense also has enough tal­ented pass rush­ers to ap­ply pres­sure.

MICHAEL OWEN BAKER AP

Rams run­ning back Todd Gur­ley said, “Ba­si­cally, every­body I know hates the Cow­boys.”

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