If this Cowboy-Ram playoff matchup seems familiar to you, you're right. The two clubs have met four previous times in postseason play, with Dallas clearly the dominant team. On Sunday, there probably will be no change in that pattern.
Los Angeles brings the worst record (9-7) of any NFL playoff team into this game. Only the ineptness of the NFC West division, in which just one club finished over .500, allowed the Rams to get this far while teams like the Redskins (10-6) stayed home.
"Don't count us out, we can win," said Ram Coach Ray Malavasi about this 4 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9) contest. Malavasi may need a victory to keep his job, as rumers persist that a loss will cost him employment, division title or not.
Midway through the season, it appeared Malavasi would be seeking a job long before the start of the playoffs.
His Rams stood one game below .500 when quarterback Pat Haden was hurt. Apparently, what little talent the Rams possessed on offense would be distrupted.
But Los Angeles put together a four-game winning streak, barely whipping Atlanta twice, San Francisco and Minnesota, and wrapped up first place as New Orleans faced in the stretch.
It was the Rams' seventh straight division title, which gave them another opportunity to retain the lowly distinction of never reaching the Super Bowl despite so many changes.
"The past is the past," Malavasi said of Dallas' 3-1 edge in playoff games against the Rams. "We don't worry about what has happened before. We've had injury problems this season and that's hurt us. But we come into this game playing our best football of the season."
Injuries have hindered Los Angeles. Besides losing Haden, the Rams have been battered and bruised in the secondary and one-time great running back Lawerence McCutcheon is still below form.
Haden's replacement, Vince Ferragamo, is a better athlete but lacks experience and consistency. He may get a break, however, if Dallas continues to lack a constant pass rush, but if Randy White and friends get in gear against a good offensive line, Ferragamo may be in for a long afternoon.
The Ram receiving corps has under gone multiple changes since the start of the season. Billy dennard is now the No. 1 end while Billy Waddy starts on the other side.
Ferragamo has to hope he can establish a running game to take the pressure off his passing. In the lateseason surge, the runners were outstanding, especially Wendell Tyler.
Tyler once had a severe case of fumble-fingers. While malady is not completely gone, he is more sure-handled than before. He gained 1,109 yards, averaging an impressive 5.1 a carry.
"We are concerned about Tyler," Dallas Coach Tom Landry said. "He has plenty of quickness. You don't want to let him get outside."
Even with Tyler, Los Angeles' major chance of winning probably hinges on how well its defense can deal with quarterback Roger Staubach.
Defensive end Jack Youngblood is a premier pass rusher who hasn't been slowed much by age. The other end, Fred Dryer, is not as good as in past seasons, but he can put pressrue on Staubach.
In the middle, tackles Mike Fanning and Larry Brooks won't make Ram fans forget Merlin Olsen, but they combine with middle linebacker Jack Reynolds to make running in their territory difficult.
And you don't go outside against linebacker Jim Youngblood, which puts a lot of pressure on fellow backer Bob Brudzinski, especially against Tony Doresett. The Cowboy running back is expected to play after resting a sore shoulder for two weeks.
The key matchups will come in the secondary, which must handle both Staubach, the NFL's leading passer, and his two talented wide receivers, Tony Hill and Drew Pearson, both of whom gained more than 1,000 aerial yards this season.
"You can't double-team one and let the other run lose," Malavasi said. "And Roger just keeps amazing you. He never shows any sign of slowing down. He's going to give us some problems, I'm sure."
Pro Bowl cornerback Pat thomas won't play for the Rams, so Staubach is sure to test Dwayne O'Steen, a second-year man with litle experience. Talented Rod Perry Is the other cornerback and Dave Elmendorf and Nolan Cromwell are fine safeties. Cromwell in particular has had a fine season.