Playoff emotion is a strange phenomenon. Frequently, it makes it impossible to predict with any certainty how a playoff game will proceed.
Coming off compelling Wildcard victories, the Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers all seemed to have plausible chances of beating their Divisional round opponents.
After all, the Colts had now won 10 of 11, winning their last game by rushing for 200 yards against a tough Houston defense. Now they would face a Kansas City team, that, although they were 12-4 on the season and held the top seed in the playoffs, had also lost three of five games shortly before the playoffs began. Furthermore, their weakness was defense – especially run defense. On their way to finishing twenty-seventh in run defense, allowing 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, the Chiefs had allowed at least 119 rushing yards in four straight games.
Dallas went in to Los Angeles with wins in eight of their last nine games. They sported one of football’s elite defenses. They were number seven overall, number six in allowing points, and number five against the run. Along the way, they had humbled two of football’s top offenses, New Orleans and Seattle. They were facing a Ram team that had also lost a little steam down the stretch. Their regular season ended in victories over two struggling units (Arizona and San Francisco). Their two games before that were losses in Chicago (15-6) and at home against Philadelphia (30-23). They had also been a shaky defensive unit – especially against the run, where they ranked twenty-third.
The Chargers, of course, were coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory – in fact, they had fashioned a better record this season than the Patriots, who seemed to be more vulnerable this year than at any time in their recent past. From Week 10 through Week 15, the Patriots had lost three of five games – with none of the losses coming against playoff teams (Tennessee, Miami and Pittsburgh).
As Divisional Weekend dawned, all three of these home teams looked ripe for the plucking. By halftime in each of these games, the home team had accumulated comfortable leads after dominating first halves, and were well on their way to stamping their tickets to the Championship Round.
Certainly all three profited from the week off. Getting that week off is always a big deal this time of year. But the dominations of these first halves was about more than rest. Under the unique influence of playoff energy, these teams were able to perform at levels unknown to them during the regular season.
This was especially true of the defenses in Kansas City and Los Angeles. Maligned all season – and, in fact, regarded as outright weaknesses of their respective teams – the defensive units of the Chiefs and Rams responded with their best games of the season.
Kansas City ate the Colts alive – running game and all. But what happened in Los Angeles could not have been predicted by the most expert analyst anywhere.
Where Did This Defense Come From?
I have written a few times about the Ram defense – especially their weakness in stopping opposing running games. A sampling of their ranking in a few important categories would show them twentieth in points allowed (384 – 24 per game), twentieth in completion percentage allowed (65.1%), twenty-third in rushing yards allowed per game (122.3), twenty-fifth in average yards allowed per completed pass (11.80), twenty-sixth in average yards allowed per attempted pass (7.70), twenty-seventh in percentage of passes going for touchdowns against them (5.8%), and thirty-second – dead last in the NFL – in average yards allowed per rush attempt at 5.1.
It wasn’t any kind of foregone conclusion that Dallas would win this game. But I think everyone expected them to score against the Rams – and especially (with Ezekiel Elliott and the league’s tenth most productive running attack) it was expected that Dallas would be able to run the ball.
To everyone’s amazement – except perhaps the players and coaches in the Ram locker room – the Cowboy running game never got off the launching pad. Allowing just 40 yards in the first half, Los Angeles’ run defense put up what I think is the most surprising statistical line of the week. Over the last 30 minutes of this particular contest, 13 Dallas rushing attempts produced just 10 yards – a 0.8 average – with no single run managing more than 5 yards. The Cowboys were 0-5 on third down in the second half, and just 1-10 on the game.
But the suddenly impenetrable run defense was only part of the story – and if Dallas’ second half rushing production was the weekend’s most surprising result, it was only slightly so. Just behind it was this rushing line: 24 rushes, 170 yards, 7.1 yard average, and 2 rushing touchdowns.
That line belonged to the Ram offense. For the first half.
The Running Rams?
As though they were running through defenders made of tissue paper, the LA running attack poured through the Cowboys and their fifth-ranked rushing defense. The vaunted defense that had allowed just 14 first downs and 176 yards the entire game against New Orleans, watched the Rams roll up 291 yards of total offense – including 20 first downs – in the first half alone. They never forced a Ram punt through those first 30 minutes.
By game’s end, LA had zipped through Dallas for 273 rushing yards, controlling the clock for 36:13.
Some of how this happened defies rational explanation. The Ram offensive line is – of course – one of football’s best. But that night – under the playoff glare and responding to the electricity of the crowd – they may have played – individually and collectively – the best games of their lives.
This must especially be true for center John Sullivan. I say that because it’s hard to imagine that he could have played any better. A ten-year veteran, Sullivan has never been honored with Pro-Bowl or All-Pro selections. Last Saturday evening, he was a study in perfect technique. As the Ram running game predominately probed the middle of the Dallas defense (and 145 of the 273 yards came between the guards) the constant in almost all of the successful Ram running plays was John Sullivan – with his pads under Maliek Collins or Antwaun Woods, and his legs constantly driving – running Dallas’ most accomplished run defenders out of the picture. This was a day that John will long remember.
Much more recognized (and decorated) is the Rams’ veteran left tackle, Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth has had many excellent days, but this was probably one of his better ones as well. Every time I looked up, it seemed like Whitworth was flipping Randy Gregory to the ground.
These two I point out, but the domination was general across the line.
So, yes, all these guys played one of their best games. But there were other factors at play here that also deserve a look.
First of all, LA was able to really exploit Dallas’ defensive scheme. Dallas isn’t a team with big offensive linemen that clog the middle of the field, allowing the linebackers to roam as they will. Dallas’ one-gap scheme depends on everyone – including their linebackers – holding his gap. They got much more than they bargained for with the Rams’ down-hill running attack. While Sullivan and Whitworth were moving people up and down the line of scrimmage, guards Rodger Saffold and Austin Blythe poured unabated into the second level of Dallas’ defense. Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Xavier Woods will see these guys in their nightmares for the next few weeks, as they spent the entire afternoon trying to duck under or around the large, quick linemen that seemed always to be bearing down on them.
A third-year player and second year starter, Higbee has developed into a fairly dependable target. He caught 24 passes this season, one off of his career high (and added two more on Sunday). But Higbee’s less discussed value for the Rams is as a blocker. Tyler is actually among the better blocking tight ends in the league – and he was another Ram blocker who always seemed to be at the point of attack.
Among his better moments was a pancake of Demarcus Lawrence that opened the cutback lane for Anderson’s 7-yard run with about five minutes left in the first. With four minutes left in the third, Higbee pushed Lawrence all the way down the line of scrimmage to open up an 8-yard run for Gurley.
He also came across the formation a couple of time to deliver potent wham blocks to defensive linemen brave enough to try to penetrate the LA backfield. He did this to Caraun Reid with 8:45 left in the second to spring Gurley for 8 yards. He also did that to Taco Charlton with 8:41 left in the game to give Anderson 5 yards up the middle.
LA’s Offensive Foundation
But the bigger picture here are the foundational principles that the Ram offense is based on. They are actually built to be a dominant running team – and statistically, you would have to say that they are. They finished third in the league behind the Neanderthal teams in Seattle and Baltimore, and averaged 4.9 rushing yards per attempt.
The two things that you always see from the Rams heavily advantage their running attack.
First, their almost undeviating use of three wide receivers always forces teams to match up with at least five defensive backs. Even as the Rams shredded the Cowboy run defense, they still could only play two linebackers because they had to respect the Ram passing game. The inherent danger in the Ram passing attack also prevents opponents from loading “the box” with more than seven defenders.
The other thing you always see from the Rams is tight formations. You will see other offenses line receivers up from sideline to sideline. This is a boon to the passing game, as it usually forces the defense to declare its coverage. But it can make the outside running game a little more challenging as blockers will have to deal with defenders already defending the edges.
But tight formations bring all of the defenders in tight as well where the blockers can get to them more easily. It also creates invitingly wide sideline alleys and forces defenders to race ball-carriers to the edges. Dallas’ contain defenders only dropped outside contain a couple of times on Saturday, but every time they did it cost them a substantial run – including Goff’s game-clinching 11-yard sprint around right end on third-and-seven with just two minutes left in the game.
One other take-away from the Rams and their running attack.
Back when they outscored Kansas City in the 54-51 game, I noted that while both teams easily could have controlled the game by running the ball, both chose not to. Based on that game, I questioned the will of those teams to keep running the ball even if the running game was available to them. My evaluation then was that both of these teams were so invested in their passing attacks, that they would be compelled – at some point – to abandon the run and go back to the air.
If nothing else, this game disproves that opinion – at least as far as the Rams go. After 48 running plays, I think the Rams have proven that they will – under certain circumstances – commit to the run.
Moments that Mattered
As with any one-score loss, there were a few pivotal moments – some that, perhaps, didn’t seem so pivotal at the time – that ended up being huge. The Rams’ first field goal drive was aided by two offside penalties. Moments before Gurley’s 35-yard touchdown run gave LA a 20-7 lead, Goff – still on his own side of the fifty – threw incomplete on third-and-14. But instead of a punt, the Rams got a new set of downs as Byron Jones kept the drive alive with a hands-to-the-face penalty.
With 52 seconds left in the first half, the Cowboys were in field goal range at the Ram 36 with an opportunity to cut the lead to 20-10. On third-and-seven, with no one open downfield, quarterback Dak Prescott began to scurry around in the pocket. As he ducked to his left, Ram linebacker Dante Fowler – who had been leaping to tackle Prescott – reached back with his right hand. His elbow and forearm did actually strike Prescott in the helmet – albeit very lightly – while his fingers momentarily grasped the back of Dak’s helmet before sliding off. That was the entirety of the contact on that play. It was closer to being a “roughing-the-passer” penalty than anything else. But it was somehow enough to have the play blown dead with an in-the-grasp call. This would be the only quarterback “sack” by either team in the game.
That call pushed the Cowboys out of field goal range.
About half-way through the fourth quarter, the Rams faced fourth-and-goal on the Cowboy 1 yard line. Ahead 23-15 at that point, a field goal might have made sense. But Sean McVay gambled on the touchdown – and got it on a one-yard run from Anderson. It’s the playoffs. No time to turn timid.
Watching the Quarterbacks
Much of the evening’s attention went to the two young quarterbacks in the game. Prescott was playing just his third playoff game, and Goff his second. It’s still too early to tell for sure if either one is the real deal. Both had moments of brilliance intermingled with moments of ineffectiveness.
Prescott was the more inconsistent of the two. He is still much more effective outside the pocket than in it. Still, he played his best at the end when the game was on the line. That has been pretty consistent in all three of his playoff games.
Goff also missed some throws and made some decisions he would like to re-visit, but played well enough to win. The question that I haven’t resolved yet is how much of the success we’re seeing from the passing game is Goff and how much McVay. This Sunday’s contest in New Orleans should prove informative.
Los Angeles will bring a few question marks with them as they invade the Big Easy. How good is this defense? Are they the dominating team they appeared to be against the Cowboys? Or are their season-long ranking a better barometer? Will they appreciably slow the Saint offense? Or will the contest resemble the Week Nine game between these two teams – a 45-35 Saint win that saw New Orleans gain 487 yards of offense – 141 of them on the ground?
Is the league catching up with Goff and the passing game? His passer rating has been under 80 in four of his last six games – with Arizona and San Francisco being the only exceptions. The Saints have been getting better and better in pass defense – they were exceptional last Sunday. Will New Orleans be able to slow the potent Ram offense?
And the running game? So dominant against Dallas, will they be able to run against the Saints as well? New Orleans was the league’s second ranked run defense. That match-up may be decisive.
The back end of the NFL playoffs doesn’t usually play out like a soap-opera cliff hanger. But these two teams seem to developing week by week.
In the AFC, the Chiefs will have to knock out the perennial champions in New England. But the NFC is wide open. Two short years ago, the Saints were 7-9 while the Rams were 4-12. This year, one of those teams will play in the Super Bowl.