Saturday’s Divisional Round was a stark reminder about the nature of teams with byes: we haven’t seen them in a few weeks, but we shouldn’t forget about them. Given two weeks to prepare for a difficult matchup, Sean McVay cooked up an offensive attack that largely nuked the dangerous Dallas run defense, repeatedly gashing the Cowboys for big yardage gains.
At the end of the night, the Rams finished with 5.7 yards per carry, an absurd number for any game, but just mind-blowing after seeing the Cowboys spend the last half of the season shutting down just about every single offense they saw.
Dallas’ defense was on the field for more than 40 plays in the first half and it showed later, with the Cowboys looking gassed on the field at various points as the Rams were utilizing jet sweeps and play action to dictate tempo and open up holes. Credit the offensive line, because it didn’t matter who was running the ball — Todd Gurley or C.J. Anderson — there were holes galore.
Imagine if someone showed up to your house in mid-November and told you Anderson, recently cut by the Panthers, ran 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns to send the Rams to the NFC Championship Game. Would you slam the door on them? Call the police? Check yourself into an asylum? It’s an unbelievable outcome for this game.
But it sort of represents everything about the Rams game-plan perfectly. Per Joe Buck on FOX, Sean McVay was worried about Todd Gurley’s cardio conditioning for this game. They wanted to ease him in. That meant other guys had to step up. It started with McVay, who called a brilliant game-plan, one that involved a lot of eye candy flying all over the place and one that gave the Dallas linebackers fits as they tried to get in position.
The Rams offensive linemen were incredibly dominant as well: they opened up GAPING holes for Anderson and Gurley. The 5.7 yards per carry almost belies the dominance in this game.
Only three players in the regular season went over 100 yards against the Cowboys this season — Chris Carson in Week 3, Marlon Mack in Week 15, Saquon Barkley in Week 17 — and both Anderson and Gurley did it. The Rams were averaging more than seven yards per carry at one point and it wasn’t thanks to jailbreaks. They were grinding out seven yard carry after seven yard carry. If Los Angeles converts early in the red zone, this game would have been a bloodbath.
Meanwhile, the Rams defense came to play too. Los Angeles held the Cowboys to 2.3 yards per carry, despite Dallas having Ezekiel Elliott and the Rams being one of the worst rushing defenses in the league during the regular season.
“How about the defense stopping the run for only 50 yards!” McVay screamed in a filmed postgame locker room session before giving Anderson and Gurley game balls. You know the offensive line got one as well, with Andrew Whitworth — “our leader!” — picking up a game ball after getting his first playoff win.
The Rams win when they’re able to run the ball and set up play action. Jared Goff wasn’t exceptional in this game but he made enough throws down the field to keep the ball moving. And he didn’t need to be exceptional. When the run game is this strong, the Rams are going to win a lot of football games.
Now they just need to find a way to win two more.
Jason Garrett gets aggressive??
At one point in time during the regular season, I tweeted that Jason Garrett would never win a Super Bowl if he continued to coach in extremely cautious fashion. Maybe he listened! Probably not but Garrett was aggressive early on for the Cowboys, going for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield that helped to set up an Amari Cooper jailbreak for a touchdown.
Maybe he listened to my colleague Jared Dubin, who previously wrote about Garrett’s unwillingness to go for it on fourth down despite having a great fourth-down offense?
Garrett would also go for a fourth down and short with seven minutes left in the third quarter around the same field position, but that was a no-brainer — the Cowboys were trailing 23-7. Worth noting: they got both of them fairly easily. And both of them led to touchdowns.
A bigger third down faced the Cowboys at the start of the fourth quarter, when they could have attempted a 53-yard field goal, and ran Ezekiel Elliott right into the heart of the Cowboys defense. It was a pretty questionable play-call, but the aggression was a solid choice. The Cowboys used a much better play-call on another fourth down later, rolling out Dak Prescott and giving him an option.
There’s a reasonable case to be made that Garrett’s hearing criticism from the outside and responding to it in a passive aggressive fashion. He’s stopped clapping over the last few months! He’s being aggressive! Maybe he changed up his socks or started mixing a little regular coffee in with the decaf in the morning. Who knows? But the results have been pretty positive all around, even if the Cowboys came up short against the Rams.
Did McVay get too aggressive?
There are people out there pounding the table for Sean McVay getting too greedy late in the game on a fourth down play near the goal. After trying a hard count against the Cowboys, with an eight-point lead, McVay called timeout. Everyone assumed he would kick, but Goff went back out to the line, ran a play and Anderson punched in an easy touchdown.
It was REALLY aggressive — Pro Football Reference marks it as the first time ever in the playoffs (with charting data dating back to 1994) where a coach passed up a chance to kick, make the game two scores and go for it near the goal line.
Anyone who was holding the Cowboys +7 probably feels like McVay was too aggressive as well, since it nixed the chance for Dallas to go down the field and cover. The Cowboys would score, but they did it and decided to kick instead of going for two. Speaking of which …
Look it doesn’t matter that much here because the Cowboys never got the ball back, but Garrett should have gone for two when he was trailing by 15 and scored a touchdown. Doing so would have let him know whether or not he would need a second possession to try and win the game.
Arguing that you should “keep hope alive” is just silly. Hope isn’t a strategy.
a) go for two when you score the first touchdown, at which point you’re either down seven points or nine points. You should be calling your best two-point conversion play regardless! Then you know whether or not you need to score twice in order to win. This will change the way you call plays and use your timeouts and give you more options to win …
b) kick and be down eight and then hope you can get the ball back and score a touchdown and pin the, ahem, hopes of your team on a two-point conversion.
It should be simple, but it’s not somehow.
The Cowboys head home and into an offseason that will be fascinating. The Cowboys didn’t win a Super Bowl, but Jason Garrett should still get an extension. Dak and Zeke might too! DeMarcus Lawrence is due some serious money. There’s no first-round pick coming because of the Amari Cooper trade, and Amari might want some money too.
The Rams will head to the NFC Championship Game and they will do so either in New Orleans (if the Saints win) or in Los Angeles, where they will host the NFC title game if the Eagles win.
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