After another season of lighting up the scoreboard, the Los Angeles Rams are back in the playoffs.
Once again, they will have home field advantage for at least their first game as they welcome the Dallas Cowboys to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night. If the Rams get by the Cowboys, they would face either the Eagles or the Saints for the right to make the trip to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. With Saturday’s game quickly approaching, let’s dive in on those three teams to get a sense for their strengths, weaknesses, and matchup against the Rams.
The Cowboys formula for success on offense this year wasn’t much different from that of two seasons ago. Run the football with Ezekiel Elliott and have Dak Prescott make a few plays throughout the game. The biggest difference is that Prescott now has a game-breaking receiver to help him out with that second part.
Since coming to the team via trade with the Raiders, Cooper has hauled in 60 passes for 831 yards and six touchdowns. However, even with Cooper in the fold, Dallas’ offense hasn’t been the driving force for the team. Big D’s offense ranks 23rd in Weighted Offensive DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric that adjusts its results so that early season games take less significance as the season goes on. Basically, if someone tries to argue with you that Dallas’ offense has been better of late, point to that number and move on.
In reality, the defense has been the strongest part of the Cowboys this season, ranking 11th in that same metric on that side of the ball. As I wrote last week, the Cowboys are really good at big-play prevention, forcing opponents to methodically slog their way down the field in order to score. That makes for an interesting battle against a Rams offense that had plenty of big plays in the passing game, but was also strong at consistently winning third-downs, owning a league-best 48.8% success rate.
The biggest concern for the Rams will be stopping the Cowboys running game. Wade Phillips’ defense struggled to stop anybody from running against them this season, ranking 28th in run defense DVOA. They allowed under 100 yards rushing just five times this season and each of their last five opponents surpassed the 100-yard mark.
New Orleans Saints
This is the likelier of the two matchups for the conference title game and if it were to come to fruition, the Rams would have to travel to the Big Easy. The Saints handed the Rams their first loss of the season in Week 9, 45-35, in a game in which New Orleans lit up the Rams D to the tune of 487 yards.
Based on the first meeting, Rams fans know what the Saints do well. The offense is devastating with Drew Brees relying heavily on receiver Michael Thomas and the running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. However, that unit did slow down a bit over the season’s final four games, as Brees came down from his otherworldly levels and regressed back to something more mortal. The numbers back that up as the Saints rank fourth in overall season DVOA while sitting at seventh in the weighted version, which puts less emphasis on early-season results. That’s not a huge gap obviously, but it does show that the unit’s production slipped slightly later in the year.
On defense, the Saints are very strong against the run (3rd Rush DVOA, 6th marginal rushing efficiency), but more vulnerable to the pass (22nd DVOA, 25th marginal efficiency). Outside of the passing game, the biggest place that the Rams could take advantage of the Saints defense is on third down. The Rams were one of the best teams in the league on third-down situations, while the Saints defense was largely below average in those same moments. In the first matchup, the Rams were 3-8 on third down, a number they will have to improve upon if they meet the Saints in the conference title game.
While everyone continues to marvel at the magical run of Nick Foles at quarterback, a large reason the Eagles have been so hot lately has been their dominance on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Rams know this all to well as Philadelphia emerged victorious in the Week 15 meeting. Philly dominated the line of scrimmage in that game, keeping the Rams away from Nick Foles (0 sacks, 3 QB hits), while pressuring Jared Goff (2 sacks, 7 QB hits) into a pair of turnovers.
It wasn’t just against the Rams either. In the Eagles four-game win streak with Foles at QB, Philadelphia has given up just 5 sacks (3 to Washington) and 15 QB hits. They held the Bears and Rams without sacks while allowing the Texans strong pass rush just one. On defense, Jim Schwartz’s unit has put up 12 sacks and 29 QB hits in that same stretch. If the Rams are able to overpower the lines on both sides of the ball, they would be in a good spot in this theoretical game.
The Eagles biggest problem is their secondary which showed itself to be vulnerable to double moves in their Wild Card game against the Bears. If the Eagles make it through the Saints and the Rams take care of business against the Cowboys, I’d expect to see a lot of those kinds of route concepts from McVay to test that young secondary.
Todd Gurley’s Health
This isn’t an opponent, but it is key to the Rams’ hopes for a playoff run. Gurley missed the final two games of the season with a knee injury. He is expected to be ready to go against the Cowboys, but the health of that knee is going to be a large factor in how far the Rams go. When Gurley is playing, the Rams offense presents a complicated conundrum to opposing defenses. Without Gurley, teams can focus more on slowing Goff and the receiving core. While C.J. Anderson is certainly a capable back, he doesn’t strike the same fear into opponents that Gurley does.
The Rams get their quest for the Lombardi Trophy started this Saturday night at 5:15 PT against the Dallas Cowboys.