LOS ANGELES — There were rumors going around the NFL in recent years that running backs weren’t that valuable in today’s era of spread offenses and pass-happy schemes. We heard some of that discussion when the Giants selected Saquon Barkley, instead of a quarterback, in the first round of the 2018 draft.
Those who still believe running backs matter need only point to Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game between the Rams (13-3) and Cowboys (11-6) at Los Angeles Coliseum. The game features young franchise quarterbacks in Jared Goff for the Rams and Dak Prescott for the Cowboys and the NFL’s most popular young head coach in Los Angeles’ Sean McVay.
But make no mistake: The centerpieces of this crucial playoff game are the running backs, Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. Real recognizes real.
“Two top running backs,” the Rams’ Gurley said earlier this week. “It’s not really about us, but obviously we have to hype it up: Zeke versus Gurley. He’s a great back. I guess I’m not too bad myself.”
Elliott is in just his third season and claimed his second career rushing title in 2018. He’s an old-school style back who feasts on multiple carriers that wear down teams in the fourth quarter. He enters Saturday’s game with 1,571 rushing yards after gaining 137 yards on 26 carries in last weekend’s 24-22 wild-card win over the Seahawks at AT&T Stadium. Perhaps more impressive are the 77 passes he caught during the regular season for 567 yards and three touchdowns, nearly doubling his output as a receiver over the previous seasons.
With Le’Veon Bell sitting out the entire year, Gurley is the league’s best all-around back, accounting for 135 yards from scrimmage per game over the past two seasons. The two-time All-Pro spent the final two regular-season games and the bye week resting a sore left knee, but is expected to be ready for Saturday.
“I think we both go in with the same mindset,” Elliott said. “It’s playoff football. It’s about the team. It’s about trying to go get that Super Bowl. Yes, it’s going to be great facing off against him. But I’m not going to put too much emphasis on that.”
Gurley figures to have a tougher time running against the Cowboys’ defense than Elliott will against the Rams’ defense. Led by linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys held the Seahawks and the league’s top rushing offense to just 73 yards on the ground last week. Dallas has allowed just two teams to run for more than 100 yards in their past nine games.
“I’ve got the five best linemen in the world,” Gurley said of his offensive front. “So I have confidence in them and myself. We’re just going to go out there and give it our all.”
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Colts (+5½) over CHIEFS/OVER (57): Andrew Luck and the Colts…
The Rams’ run defense has been the team’s weak link. They have allowed at least 100 yards rushing in 11 games and more than 140 yards five times. The Rams believe the rushing yardage is negated by their ability to create turnovers (30 on the year) and make key stops in critical situations.
“Stopping the run is going to always be a priority,” McVay said, “especially when you’re talking about playing against a team like this. We’ve got to play good football down-in and down-out. Stopping the run will be one of those things that will dictate that. But it’s also going to be stopping the pass and getting them off on third downs.”
The Rams, winners of the NFC West, were beaten by the Falcons, 26-13, in the wild-card round a year ago. They are looking for their first playoff win since 2005.
“We have a lot of respect for the Dallas Cowboys, but we expect to win this game,” McVay said. “We know it’s going to take a great effort, but we’re going in with a mindset and mentality that we expect to win.”
They’ll need a big game from Gurley to do that.
Three keys to the game
Cowboys need to keep it close: The Rams would love to use their explosive offense to create a big lead and make the Cowboys one dimensional. They could then unleash their pass rush led by Aaron Donald, who has 20.5 sacks on the season. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times this year, but dropped only once last week as Dallas controlled the game against the Seahawks with a solid ground attack. Given time, Prescott can beat anybody. The Rams, who generated 41 sacks in 2018, can’t afford that.
Which Jared Goff shows up? The Rams quarterback slumped in December, when he threw two touchdown passes and was intercepted six times over a four-game stretch. Goff lost at home in the wild-card round last year and doesn’t want to go 0-2 in the playoffs. “Winning is the most important stat, and that’s no different in the playoffs,” he said.
Special teams could decide game: Poor special teams play hurt the Rams in last year’s wild-card loss to the Falcons. A Rams first-quarter punt bounced off the leg of one of their players while he was blocking. The fumble was recovered by Atlanta. Later in the quarter, return man Pharoh Cooper fumbled a kickoff that was also recovered by the Falcons. Atlanta cashed the turnovers into 10 quick first-quarter points en route to a 26-13 win.