The Cowboys (10-6) are the only team in the NFC playoff field that the Rams (13-3) have not played this season. They last met in 2017, when the Rams pulled off a come-from-behind victory at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys shut down the Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round to advance on Saturday. The Rams secured a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
“These guys have been playing really good football throughout the year,” Rams coach Sean McVay said Sunday of the Cowboys. “They're battle-tested and it's going to be a really tough challenge for us.”
Saturday’s game will feature two of the NFL’s top running backs in Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley, two young quarterbacks in Jared Goff and Dak Prescott, and two defenses that have played pivotal roles in their teams’ success.
Leading the way: Gurley led the league in rushing yards for most of the season, but Elliott outpaced the defending NFL Offensive Player of the Year down the stretch to win the regular-season rushing title with 1,434 rushing yards. Gurley finished with 1,251 rushing yards despite sitting out the final two games because of knee inflammation and soreness.
Gurley, who the led NFL with a league-best 21 touchdowns and is the centerpiece of a team that produces an average of 32.9 points per game, is expected to play Saturday. Veteran backup C.J. Anderson, whom the team signed in Week 16, has proved dependable in two games, rushing for 299 yards in Gurley's absence.
Like Gurley, Elliott is a multi-dimensional back. Along with averaging 95.6 rushing yards per game, he’s also caught 77 passes for 567 yards and three touchdowns. Controlling Elliott will be a challenge for a defense that’s struggled to slow the run.
“He's got the ability to go through you or go around you with speed,” McVay said. “He's truly a complete back and you could see that a lot of what they do is predicated on just him getting a bunch of touches.”
Young talent: Goff was among the MVP candidates through Week 11, before the third-year pro fell into a three-week slump. He rebounded in the final two games -- but did so against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, who won a combined seven games.
Goff finished the regular season as the NFL’s fourth-ranked passer with 4,688 yards. He threw 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The question is whether the 24-year-old can recapture the form he displayed through the first 11 weeks of the season, which included a thrilling victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Prescott, 25, is the youngest Cowboys quarterback to ever win a playoff game.
“Dak Prescott's an incredible competitor,” McVay said, pointing to Prescott’s performance against the Seahawks.
Prescott’s play this season was bolstered by the addition of former first-round pick Amari Cooper, whom the Cowboys acquired in a trade with the Oakland Raiders seven games into the season. Prescott passed for 22 touchdowns, and added six more rushing, while throwing eight interceptions.
On Saturday, Prescott will attempt to help the Cowboys snap their five-game losing streak in the divisional round.
Differing defenses: The Rams' heralded defense hasn’t exactly lived up to its billing this season, and it could have its hands full with Elliott, Prescott and Cooper.
Despite featuring a front that includes Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers, the Rams rank in the bottom half of the league against the run, having allowed opponents to rush for an average of 122.3 yards per game.
The defense’s best quality -- outside of the havoc-wreaking Donald, who led the NFL with 20.5 sacks -- is its innate ability to come up with big plays late to secure wins.
The Cowboys feature a stout defense, the only one to shut down Drew Brees and the NFC’s top-seeded New Orleans Saints this season. Dallas has been outstanding against the run, allowing an average of 94.6 rushing yards per game, and has kept opposing teams' scoring in check, allowing an average of 20.3 points per game.
“Unbelievable team speed on all three levels,” McVay said. “Really sound. Similar to kind of what we said about Chicago, you earn every single yard against great defenses like this and that's exactly what this defense presents.”