Elliott, Gurley hit prime-time playoff runway in Coliseum
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.