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Cowboys vs. Rams: The Divisional Round will be won in the trenches

The quarterbacks and running backs will grab the headlines, but Saturday’s game comes down to who wins in the trenches.

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The Dallas Cowboys came out on top in a physical football game against the Seattle Seahawks last Saturday night in the Wild Card round of the NFC Playoffs. Led by Frank Clark and company, the Seahawks are known to play tough while possessing the ability to stuff the run and get after the quarterback. Dallas proved it was able to match Seattle’s toughness, as rookie offensive guard Connor Williams stepped up in a big way and filled in nicely, despite some worrying about how the Cowboys would perform without Xavier Su’a-Filo.

In fact, the rookie from Texas made an impressive block on the essential game-sealing run from quarterback Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys were mostly able to dictate the pace of the game, controlling the time of possession and opening up running lanes for the spectacular Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 137 yards and over five yards per carry against a solid Seattle front. Dallas was also much more successful in protecting Prescott than the team was in the September matchup. Some of that has to do with Prescott making quicker decisions, while some of it has to do with the offensive line continuing to improve since the move to put Marc Colombo in charge of the unit.

On the flip side, the Cowboys won the battle in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball as well. Seattle entered the NFL Playoffs as the number one rushing team, statistically, across the league. The three-headed attack of Chris Carson, first-round rookie Rashaad Penny, and quarterback Russell Wilson, kept defenses on its heels while playing ball-control offense. The Cowboys, however, limited Carson to just 1.5 yards per carry. The Seahawks, as a team, were held to a total of 73 yards on the ground for the full four quarters.

The Hot Boyz have been among the best across the NFL this season, but it was easy to see that the group led by DeMarcus Lawrence wanted to set the tone early and often on Saturday against a potent rushing attack. Now, Kris Richard and the Cowboys defense have a similar, yet more dynamic, challenge on its hands.

Enter the Los Angeles Rams, led by running back Todd Gurley. Gurley, who was a challenger for this season’s rushing title, found the end zone an impressive 17 times on the ground in 2018 — in addition to four more scores as a receiver in Sean McVay’s offense. Chris Carson is a handful, but it is clear that Gurley offers more ways to hurt defenses and the Cowboys must be prepared for that.

Making the Rams one-dimensional is key if the Cowboys are going to come out of the Coliseum with a win and a berth in the NFC title game for the first time since the mid-90’s. Jared Goff began the season on fire, but has come back down to earth since the team’s bye week earlier in the season. While still a good quarterback in McVay’s scheme, the Cowboys should have opportunities to make things hard for Goff on Saturday evening, and that should only increase if the Dallas run defense from the Seattle game travels to the West Coast.

The Cowboys received big performances from Antwaun Woods — three tackles, including a TFL — and Maliek Collins — four tackles, one TFL, one sack — against the Seahawks, which played a role in the season continuing for at least another week. Dallas is hoping that Collins, banged up with an ankle injury, is able to go against L.A.; meanwhile. Woods appears to be excited to return to the stadium where he played his college football.

Gurley is going to get his — after all, he is averaging nearly six yards each time he touches the football in addition to his league-high 21 scores, despite missing the season’s final two games. While Dallas may not be able to have a repeat performance of holding their opponent’s top back to less than two yards per carry, Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli’s unit have what it takes to make things hard for the Rams’ rushing attack.

On the other side, Dallas will have the challenge of running the football against the Rams’ defensive line and front seven in Hollywood. The bad news for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas offensive line is that Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers will likely look to make a statement on their home turf. The good news, though, for the Cowboys is that the Rams are statistically the worst defense in the league against the run — surrendering 122.3 rushing yards per contest and 5.1 yards per carry.

There was some concern going into the Seattle game in regards to the health of Su’a-Filo, but as mentioned previously, Williams played well last weekend. This Saturday, however, will be a bigger challenge against a pair of stud interior defensive linemen — including the best in the league. But that can be said for any lineman, especially a rookie. The statistics actually say that the Cowboys are better throwing the ball when Williams is on the field.

It should also be beneficial to have some continuity on the offensive line as Dallas continues its playoff run. If the Cowboys can have anywhere near the kind of success on the ground that it did versus Seattle, things should open up for Dak Prescott against a secondary with notable playmakers such as Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. The Cowboys will have opportunities to attack the Rams through the air, as L.A. gives up nearly eight yards per pass attempt. The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen dove into some of the key matchups of the Cowboys-Rams battle, including how Amari Cooper should give Dallas some advantages.

The Rams are going to have difficulty matching up with Amari Cooper. Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will likely have their best cover corner Aqib Talib shadow Cooper like he did when Cooper faced the Rams as a member of the Raiders in Week 1. Cooper finished with only one catch but it wasn’t because he was shut down. He got wide open against Talib on numerous occasions but the ball didn’t find him for various reasons.

In order for the Cowboys to exploit those matchups and opportunities, the offensive line must hold up in both the run game and in pass protection versus a front that has more than one playmaker. Aaron Donald can wreck games, but it may come down to how the Cowboys block and defend the rest of the Rams’ front seven.

So while the headlines will be about the 2016 draft’s No. 135 pick, Dak Prescott, versus the draft’s No. 1 pick, Jared Goff, or two of the best running backs in the league — Ezekiel Elliott, the league’s leading rusher for the second time in three seasons, and Todd Gurley, this season’s first-team All-Pro back — the game will come down to the battle between the offensive and defensive lines.

Which side will be up for the challenge?

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