COWBOYS // RAMS OVERVIEW
When the Cowboys were 3-5 and the Rams were 8-0, there were not many people who were expecting this matchup in the Divisional round of the playoffs — and those who did see this matchup coming would certainly not have seen this game carrying potential for a close contest. But with the Cowboys trading for Amari Cooper and rounding into form in all phases of the game, and with the Rams losing Cooper Kupp and now dealing with a hobbled Todd Gurley, this is a much more appealing matchup than would have seemed possible a couple months back. The Rams obviously have the edge in this spot (they are touchdown favorites at home), but there are opportunities for the Cowboys to hang in this game, and it should be a fun, competitive battle from kickoff to final whistle.
COWBOYS RUN OFFENSE
In spite of the Rams regularly playing with a lead this year, their big weakness against the run (dead last in yards allowed per carry) led to them allowing the eighth most running back rushing yards in the league this year. With Dallas ranking 24th this year in passing play percentage, we should expect a run-heavy game plan on this side of the ball, as the Cowboys look to control this game as much as they can — slowing down the pace (24th in pace of play on the year) and looking to keep the fast-paced (third in pace), high-powered (second in scoring) Rams offense off the field. This should lead to another game for Ezekiel Elliott of 25+ touches, after recent touch totals of 25 // 30 // 31 // 29 // 40 // 25 // 23 // 30. Zeke has topped 110 yards on the ground in five of these eight games — adding six total touchdowns and at least four catches in every game in this stretch. The one area where this matchup takes a step back is through the air, as the Rams have allowed the fourth fewest receiving yards to enemy backs, though Zeke is as close as you can get to a stone lock for 100+ scrimmage yards, and he’ll be involved in scoring opportunities from there. As is almost always the case: he stands out as one of the safer, higher-upside plays on the slate — with his every-down role and his pass-game involvement keeping him involved regardless of game flow.
COWBOYS PASS OFFENSE
The Rams have been an attackable matchup through the air this year, ranking 24th in yards allowed per pass attempt and allowing the seventh most passing touchdowns in the league. The Cowboys did take the second most sacks in the NFL this season, which will open opportunities for stalled drives against this stout Rams front, while the Cowboys should also be expected to roll with a slow-paced, run-heavy approach for as long as they can this week. In spite of the Rams constantly playing with a lead this year, only nine teams faced fewer pass attempts on the season, while the Cowboys threw the ball the 12th fewest times in the league. Volume is not the bet to make in this spot (Dak Prescott topped 36 pass attempts in only one game all year that he shared with Zeke, while that was also the only game “shared with Zeke” that led to 300+ passing yards for the Cowboys), but there should be enough volume for Amari Cooper to be involved, while additional targets will be spread out behind him.
If we take away the monster-volume games for this passing attack, Cooper has seen recent target counts with the Cowboys of 9 // 8 // 7 // 5 // 9. Cooper primarily works the short areas of the field and relies on YAC for his upside (leading to 31 or fewer receiving yards in three of his last four games), though his likeliest range in this spot is something like a 6-70-0 line, with broken play and touchdown upside from there. The conservative nature of this offense limits Cooper’s chances of a big game, but he has the on-his-own talent to get there if things break just right.
With Prescott topping 300 yards only twice all year (with one of these games coming without Zeke, and with both of these games coming in ultra pass-heavy spots), and with Prescott also failing to top even two touchdown passes outside of those two pass-heavy games, production behind Amari has been difficult to bet on — especially as Zeke has seen his pass role grow in recent weeks. Michael Gallup is a low-floor play with slim opportunity for a downfield shot to turn into a big play or a touchdown. Cole Beasley is ankle-hampered with a short-area role that only occasionally yields upside. Nothing in the matchup for either of these players suggests a big game is coming, leaving each as nothing more than a guess-and-hope play. Ultimately, the same goes for Blake Jarwin — though the Rams did allow the third most tight end yards this year, making it possible that Jarwin exists as more than just a floor play this week.
RAMS PASS OFFENSE
On a per-play basis, the Cowboys’ reputation exceeded their reality in the pass game this year, with this team ranked middle of the pack in aDOT and near the bottom of the league in catch rate allowed — with only their ability to tackle well after the catch (the Cowboys ranked eighth in YAC/R rate allowed) keeping them in the top half of the league in yards allowed per pass attempt, where they finished 13th. With that said, however: the Cowboys’ slow-paced, run-dominant offense allowed them to face the seventh fewest opponent plays per game in the league; their run defense and their strong downfield pass defense (sixth fewest pass plays of 20+ yards allowed) enabled them to rank ninth in yards allowed per play; and their solid red zone defense (ninth in opponent red zone touchdown rate) led to them allowing the sixth fewest points per game. Only nine teams allowed fewer passing touchdowns than Dallas. Only eight teams allowed fewer wide receiver catches. Only seven teams allowed fewer wide receiver yards. This is not a truly scary spot for the Rams’ passing attack, but it is a below-average spot, with the Cowboys lowering passing game expectations across the board. Impressively, only two teams allowed fewer wide receiver touchdowns than the Cowboys this year.
All of this is enough to make Jared Goff a lesser on-paper play than the two quarterbacks squaring off earlier in the day, with concerns in this spot heightened by Goff’s four-game stretch of underwhelming play from Weeks 13 through 16 without Cooper Kupp (only one game above 216 passing yards; two touchdowns and six interceptions in this stretch). The best justification for rostering Goff in this spot is the fact that he and Sean McVay have had two weeks to prepare for this game, creating some optimism that Goff can exceed expectations.
Volume expectations should be held in check for the Rams’ passing attack against this slow-paced, run-heavy Cowboys team, though somewhere in the range of 30 to 36 pass attempts is still a fair projection — which should be enough for Robert Woods (recent target counts of 8 // 13 // 9 // 7 // 3) to land in his typical “seven to nine target” range, and for Brandin Cooks (recent target counts of 6 // 8 // 7 // 3 // 9) to land in his typical “six to eight target” range. Woods’ slot-dominant usage and short/deep role give him a higher floor/ceiling combo, while Cooks — with a low floor in a spot that meshes poorly with his skill set — is a “bet on big play” option.
Behind these two, Josh Reynolds has seen bounce-around usage lately (recent target counts of 5 // 7 // 12 // 2 // 7), with five to seven looks his likeliest range. Reynolds has primarily worked the short areas of the field, leaving yardage upside more thin than it is on his more heralded teammates, though his guaranteed involvement in a high-powered offense keeps him in the conversation on a slate this small.
The most quietly intriguing player on this side of the ball is Gerald Everett, who pulled target counts of 7 // 7 // 6 in Weeks 14-16 before dropping to one target in Week 17. The Cowboys have allowed the fourth most receptions and the 12th most yards to the tight end position, and Everett has run a pass route on 59.9% of Goff’s drop backs across the last four Rams games. It won’t be surprising if he sees four to seven looks in this spot.
RAMS RUN OFFENSE
The matchup is not great for the Rams’ run offense against a Dallas defense that finished the regular season ranked fifth in DVOA against the run, with the fifth fewest yards allowed per carry in the league — though with the Rams ranked first in adjusted line yards this year (while ranking third in rushing yards per game and third in yards per carry), the matchup is less of a concern than the health of Todd Gurley, who is practicing this week, but who seems to be less than 100%. The likeliest scenario this week is that Gurley handles the bulk of the work, but that C.J. Anderson mixes in for a non-negligible number of touches of his own. If this happens, it will be difficult for either guy to pay off his price tag outside of high efficiency or a multi-touchdown game. Working in Gurley’s favor is the fact that Dallas is better attacked with running backs through the air (only four teams allowed more receptions to the position), where the Rams have been less enthusiastic in their deployment of Anderson (three targets in back-to-back games). If no further clarity arrives in this spot (i.e., late-week reports giving Gurley the full-go), consider Gurley a risky play with big upside, and consider Anderson a hope-for-touchdowns play.
Zeke is the clear top play from this game, with one of the most locked-in workloads in football, and with a matchup that should filter touches in his direction. He carries the highest floor/ceiling projection on the weekend. Elsewhere on the Cowboys, Amari is the most attractive option, with a strong floor, and with a ceiling that is “unlikely to be reached, but very nice if he gets there.” Dak is a candidate to go over-owned compared to expectations on this slate, though he’s obviously very much in the conversation with a small slate and with a potential “chasing points” setup in store. The ancillary pass catchers on the Cowboys are best reserved for rosters that fade Zeke and instead bet on a pass-heavy game from Dallas — with all of these guys simply “hope for the best” options outside of that setup.
On the Rams’ side, no one pops off the page — with workload question marks in the backfield, and with volume and matchup concerns in the pass game — though we should ultimately expect the Rams to push for at least four touchdowns in this spot, keeping several of these guys in the conversation. Goff is a clear second-tier play behind Mahomes and Luck, but you could bet on a big game from this passing attack with an extra week to prepare; Woods/Cooks are “solid but unspectacular,” with Woods the preferred play from a floor perspective, but with both guys carrying ceiling (it is also worth noting that they are very fairly priced on DraftKings, where they have been adjusted for their recent usage and for the matchup); Reynolds and Everett are in play as sneaky tourney plays who are not drawing dead for upside; the backs are risky at their respective prices, but either guy — and Gurley in particular — could wind up as a difference-maker if things break the right way.