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Cowboys vs. Rams: Tale of the intangibles

You can’t really measure intangibles, but they do mean something in the Cowboys and Rams playoff game.

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It is the era of metrics and analytics in the NFL. With advanced stats, all-22 breakdowns, and sites like Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference, we have an unprecedented array of tools and measurements to dissect teams and players. That is great. But the game is still played and coached by human beings, and there are things beyond stats and grades. They are called intangibles. In a week leading up to the Dallas Cowboys playing the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, you are being bombarded with countless arguments and counterarguments about which team is quantifiably better. But let’s take a look at things that can’t be counted or measured and see what they might say about this matchup.

Momentum and confidence

Right off the bat, we get to a subject, momentum, whose very existence is frequently debated. It is something that seems evident - up until one play completely reverses it, which argues against it having existed in the first place.

But a big part of this particular article is how things affect the mentality of the men involved in the game and that is where momentum might be better described as confidence. That is why they are lumped together.

Here, the Cowboys have both in tons. They are on an 8-1 run stretching back to the midpoint of the regular season, and are just a vastly different team than they were in the first half of 2018. They have found multiple ways to win. And in both interviews and social media, the players are exuding a belief in themselves. That is not just as individuals, but in each other. Here are a couple of examples from the war daddy himself.

This kind of faith and support is evident on both sides of the ball.

Normally, getting a bye week is seen as a real advantage. But when a team is riding a hot streak like the Cowboys, it is sometimes not a bad thing to have to keep the routine going. That is where the much-discussed decision by Jason Garrett to play Dak Prescott and many of the starters in the season-finale may have paid real dividends. Now, they are coming off a very satisfying win over the Seattle Seahawks that not many expected them to get.

Now, I don’t study the Rams much. But they clinched a playoff berth early, and may have been guilty of coasting a bit late in the season. They had a shot at getting home field throughout the playoffs, but went 3-2 in December, letting that slip away. Those three wins were against losing teams, the 6-10 Detroit Lions, the 3-13 Arizona Cardinals, and the 4-12 San Francisco 49ers. Both losses were against eventual playoff teams, the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles. That is not exactly entering the playoffs on a roll. While they no doubt have a lot of confidence in their 13-3 record, it is just not the same as the Cowboys should have.

Home field advantage

For years, this was something that just did not exist in Dallas. But they went 8-1 in the suddenly very friendly confines of AT&T Stadium. So having to go on the road Saturday bodes poorly for them.

Well, not so fast. The Cowboys have long had one of the best “traveling” fan bases in the NFL. I put that in quotes, because the truth is that there are actually a ton of Dallas fans in almost every NFL city. Los Angeles has long been a place where a decent percentage of the people who show up are wearing Cowboys colors.

There is talk that this could be closer to a 50-50 crowd than one would expect. In any case, there should be a lot of vocal Cowboys fans in the house. Los Angeles has always been rather lukewarm in its support for the home team, although this season should have warmed them up some.

This isn’t like going into, say, the New Orleans Superdome. For which we really should be grateful to the Eagles, as painful as that is. They get to face that hostile crowd this week.

Now, I never actively root for Philly. But if the Cowboys advance on Saturday, I will be pulling for a New Orleans Saints loss. One last home game would be ineffably sweet.

The coaches

Sean McVay is known as an offensive genius, one of the darlings of the NFL at the moment. The media swoon at his ability to rattle off the roster of his upcoming opponent. Jason Garrett is known for clapping and delivering the absolute minimum in meaningful information in his media interactions.

McVay also is appearing in just his second playoffs, and has not yet coached his team to a win. Garrett is now 2-2 in the tournament. Seemingly endless articles were written about the latter’s inability to win prior to last Saturday. No one seems to be really interested in McVay’s lack of success, which is somewhat understandable given his newness, but it is also a fact that Garrett knows how to win in the postseason, albeit not as consistently as we might hope.

The head coaching job is about much more than just the three hours of a game each week, as well. While McVay has clearly done a good job cultivating and leading a winner, Garrett has been superb at building the culture he wants and getting his team to buy in. Holding his team together through the 3-5 start and then fighting the way into the playoffs is clear testament to that.

McVay may be very good on the sidelines, but in everything else it looks like Garrett has the edge here.

The quarterbacks

In the 2016 draft, Jared Goff was taken with the first overall pick. He, along with Carson Wentz, was one of the perceived “can’t miss” prospects. He has since shown that may have been justified, as he has lit up the scoreboard and stat sheets the past two seasons once he was free of the ball-and-chain named Jeff Fisher.

Prescott was taken with a fourth-round supplemental pick. He is the unlikeliest of candidates to become the franchise quarterback of the most visible team in the league. Yet he has gone 33-17 in his young career, despite the travails of 2017. Like Garrett, he now knows how to win a playoff game.

More importantly, at least for this discussion, was how he led his team in the Wild Card round. He played his best ball in the fourth quarter, something that has become a habit for him, as Bob Sturm pointed out in his Tuesday Decoding Linehan piece about that game at The Athletic. Another thing that is clearly an intangible is the idea of being “clutch”. So far in his young career, Prescott has shown that trait in full. Along the way, he has completely won the confidence of his team.

Goff may have those things as well, but it is worth noting that in December he passed for 207 or less yards in four of the five games, and had a truly dismal passer rating of 19.1 against the Bears, sandwiched between a 68.6 and a 75.9. That would seem to indicate a bit less “clutchiness” for him. He did rebound with very high ratings in the final two weeks of the regular season - against two unimpressive pass defenses that were just playing out the string.

The running backs

For fans of the running game, this is the most exciting matchup of the postseason. Ezekiel Elliott won the rushing crown, and Todd Gurley came in third in yards, even though he missed the last two games with an injury. (Elliott also missed the final game, but just to rest him for the playoffs).

The big question here is whether Gurley is going to have a bit of rust, another one of those vague intangible thingies. He is also coming off that injury.

Meanwhile, Zeke certainly got back in his groove with his 169 total yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown against Seattle. Like Dak, he is on a roll and playing at the top of his game. Maybe Gurley will also be at peak form. But he may not.

The “verdict’

It is by definition not definitive. But from my (admittedly not purely objective) viewpoint, the intangibles in this game favor the Cowboys. And that is pretty much across the board.

As always, we have to see how it plays out on the field. But the team certainly looks to be feeling it. That is just one more intangible that can really have an impact.

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