El­liott, Gur­ley hit prime-time play­off run­way in Coli­seum

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - SPORTS - Jar­rett Bell

Feed Zeke. That theme, which Cow­boys’ star run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott dra­mat­i­cally ac­cen­tu­ates with his pan­tomime af­ter big runs, pro­vides the ob­vi­ous make-or­break for­mula for Dal­las’ chances Sat­ur­day of up­set­ting the Rams, who al­lowed an NFL-worst 5.1 yards per carry dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

For the sec­ond time in his three sea­sons, El­liott is the NFL’s rush­ing champ. Af­ter rip­ping off 1,434 yards dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, he started the play­offs by run­ning for 137 yards with a touch­down against the Sea­hawks.

Rams de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips knows. His unit, with NFL sack leader Aaron Don­ald and high-pro­file tag-team part­ner Ndamukong Suh seem­ingly play­ing the run as an af­ter­thought on the way to rush­ing the quar­ter­back, must change its habit of leav­ing gap­ing holes in the mid­dle of the de­fense ASAP … or get eaten up by the Zeke Mon­ster. That’s just one of the com­pelling sto­ry­lines that will be in play at Los An­ge­les Me­mo­rial Coli­seum.

Phillips, fired as Cow­boys’ coach and re­placed by Ja­son Gar­rett, can make quite the re­venge state­ment if his unit shuts down El­liott on the way to an NFC ti­tle game. And with Todd Gur­ley ig­nit­ing the Rams’ ex­plo­sive of­fense, there’s a de­bate to be had about how he stacks up against El­liott when con­sid­er­ing the NFL’s best run­ning back. Gur­ley, the league’s reign­ing Of­fen­sive Player of the Year, was just named first-team all-pro again. El­liott was the sec­ond-team run­ning back but has been bet­ter down the stretch as Gur­ley has nursed a knee in­jury, which pro­vides ad­di­tional in­trigue. The run­ner who most in­flicts his pres­ence prob­a­bly wins.

That pres­ence, though, ex­tends be­yond the trenches. While Gur­ley is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered in the realm with Le’Veon Bell (when he plays) as the most dan­ger­ous multi-threat run­ning backs, the man­ner in which El­liott has had an ex­panded role in Dal­las’ of­fense this sea­son has been im­pres­sive and, to a de­gree, over­looked. He caught 77 passes dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son (and four more against Seat­tle), which was eas­ily a ca­reer high af­ter he caught 58 passes in his first two sea­sons com­bined. So feed­ing Zeke will also in­clude Dak Prescott find­ing his locker mate in the pass­ing game, where he can present an­other type of chal­lenge for the Rams’ de­fense.

A quick glance at other items of in­ter­est as the NFL di­vi­sional play­offs loom.

Pres­sure’s on: Andy Reid. The Chiefs’ coach, ranked eighth all time in the NFL for reg­u­lar-sea­son vic­to­ries, doesn’t get enough credit for be­ing one of the league’s best of­fen­sive minds. Fur­ther proof has come this sea­son, as he crafted the league’s most pro­lific of­fense. Yet Jan­uary is where things re­ally get sticky for Reid, whose legacy in­cludes a litany of post­sea­son dis­ap­point­ments. He took the Eagles to five NFC ti­tle games and ad­vanced to just one Su­per Bowl.

Then there were the melt­down play­off losses with the Chiefs. They blew a 38-10 lead at In­di­anapo­lis in 2014, then last year al­lowed the Titans to come back from a 21-3 deficit at Ar­row­head. Ah, Ar­row­head. The Chiefs have lost an NFLrecord six con­sec­u­tive home play­off games. That’s not all on Reid, as the drought dates to 1993. But com­bine the pat­tern of home set­backs with Reid’s his­tory, and the No. 1 seed the Chiefs carry into Sat­ur­day’s matchup against the Colts doesn’t seem to be as se­cure as usual for a Su­per Bowl hope­ful.

Key matchup: Alvin Ka­mara vs. Malcolm Jenk­ins. The fin­ish­ing state­ment of New Or­leans’ romp of Philadel­phia in Week 11 came with Ka­mara’s 37yard TD grab on a deep side­line route while matched against the Pro Bowl safety. No, the Eagles haven’t for­got­ten that, as vet­eran tackle Ja­son Peters re­minded us this week in lament­ing that he felt the Saints ran up the score. It’s un­clear how much the Eagles will match Jenk­ins on Ka­mara, who, with 81 re­cep­tions this sea­son, typ­i­cally draws cor­ner­backs, safeties, dou­ble-cov­er­age brack­ets and all sorts of com­bi­na­tion schemes while emerg­ing as ar­guably the NFL’s best re­ceiver out of the back­field.

But the Novem­ber TD remains as per­haps the best rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the chal­lenge fac­ing the Eagles’ sec­ondary over­all against the mul­ti­di­men­sional Saints’ of­fense trig­gered by Drew Brees. Since Week 11, the Eagles’ sec­ondary has set­tled, to a de­gree, and Jenk­ins has been a big rea­son with his play and vet­eran lead­er­ship. Now comes the ul­ti­mate lit­mus test for that progress at their House of Hor­rors, oth­er­wise known as the Su­per­dome.

Next man up: Clay­ton Geathers. With safety Mike Mitchell done for the sea­son, placed on in­jured re­serve due to a calf in­jury, Geathers steps back into the start­ing lineup for the Colts. Com­pound­ing mat­ters: Ma­lik Hooker, the other start­ing safety, hasn’t prac­ticed all week while nurs­ing a foot in­jury. Hooker, a first-round pick in 2017, is of­fi­cially listed as ques­tion­able. Given the stakes, it’s easy to as­sume that he will play … and that the Chiefs will test his ef­fec­tive­ness on a bad wheel.

No, hav­ing a bat­tered sec­ondary isn’t the best op­tion in try­ing to con­tain quar­ter­back Pa­trick Ma­homes (50 TDs) and the ex­plo­sive Kansas City of­fense. At least in Geathers, the Colts aren’t re­ly­ing on a fresh face. He started 12 games this sea­son, un­til Mitchell came along as a mid­sea­son ad­di­tion. Sure, there was a rea­son Mitchell re­placed Geathers. But Geathers, a 10th-year pro, also con­trib­uted a vet­eran pres­ence that made a big dif­fer­ence on the young play­ers around him in an emerg­ing sec­ondary that sud­denly has a cri­sis.


Ezekiel El­liott has av­er­aged 131 yards in 2 play­off games.

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