LOS ANGELES — For all the pomp and points, for all the coveting of Coach Sean McVay’s style, for all the acceptance that the Los Angeles Rams are ushering the NFL into the future, they hadn’t done a basic thing for a transformative team: Win a playoff game. Before the Rams changed the game, they needed to win one that really mattered.
Last season, Year 1 of the McVay revolution, ended with a one-and-done playoff cameo. On Saturday, the Dallas Cowboys came to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with a large following that began chanting “Let’s go Cowboys!” nearly two hours before kickoff. With their run-based, ball-control offense and rejuvenated defense, Dallas seemed a dangerous opponent for the flashy Rams. The potential for a second straight season-ending home playoff loss loomed over Los Angeles and its hype.
But during the Rams’ 30-22 victory in the NFC divisional round, they showed not just their style but a level of substance they aren’t given credit for possessing. Beating the Cowboys requires some smash-mouth ability. And when they needed to, the Rams pushed around their opponent and overpowered them in a manner the Cowboys had become accustomed to doing.
Behind running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, Los Angeles ran over and through Dallas. And when called upon to stop Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott on a critical fourth and one to start the fourth quarter, the Los Angeles defense was up to the task. By the end of the night, the team with the space-age style had played an entire game with its feet on the ground — and it looked almost as impressive as it does when it wins games with creativity and innovation.
In advancing to the NFC championship game against the winner of Sunday’s Philadelphia-New Orleans clash, the Rams loosed Anderson for 123 yards and Gurley for 115 as the team ran for 273 against a Dallas defense that had specialized in stopping the run. The backs combined for three touchdowns. Los Angeles also limited Elliott and the Cowboys’ potent run game to 50 yards and just 2.3 per carry.
“It’s scary,” Anderson said of teaming with Gurley. “We’ve got two different styles. We can keep teams off balance.”
The physical play, on both sides of the ball, allowed the Rams to win without a dynamic passing performance. Jared Goff completed only 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards, and he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. He struggled in the red zone early, failing to get the Rams into the end zone after opening drives of 11 and 16 plays.
But it didn’t matter — not the way the Rams were running the football.
Entering the game, the thought was that Dallas could exploit the L.A. run defense, which surrendered a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season. Instead, the Rams’ run game — which is perhaps the underrated strength of the team even though Gurley is an elite back — controlled the action and allowed the home team to hold the ball for more than 36 of the game’s 60 minutes.
The offensive line made it so easy for the backs that Gurley nearly shrugged while describing his electrifying 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
“The Red Sea parted, and I ran, man,” he said. “All I had to do was cut one time and just run.”
It wasn’t as simple for the Rams to transform into such a juggernaut. Saturday was the two-year anniversary of McVay’s arrival as a 30-year-old, first-time head coach. Before he came in and immediately posted 11-5 and 13-3 records in his first two seasons, the franchise hadn’t had a winning season since 2003, when it was in St. Louis. It hadn’t won a playoff game since Jan. 8, 2005.
In addition, it hadn’t advanced to a conference title game since 2002. If you’re talking about success only while based in Los Angeles, it hasn’t been this far since 1990, when it lost, 30-3, to San Francisco in the NFC title game.
By any measure, the Rams had to come a long way to find itself one victory from the Super Bowl. When asked to reflect on his first playoff victory, McVay declined to talk about himself.
“It means a lot for this team,” he said, “and I think that’s what’s special about it.”
He went on to celebrate 37-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was dominant Saturday. Until this triumph, Whitworth had gone his entire distinguished career without a playoff victory. He had lost seven in a row, six with Cincinnati and the one last season with the Rams. On the eighth try, he broke through.
For as much as the Rams are this new phenomenon, they are a trendy team full of individuals who have struggled and paid dues to reach this point. They’re not looking for appreciation. They’re hungry.
“This ain’t [expletive],” Gurley said. “We still got one more. Keep winning. We’ve got to keep winning.”
The Rams rushed for 170 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry in the first half. During the regular season, the Cowboys ranked fifth in the NFL in run defense, and they had allowed just four backs to run for 70 or more yards in a game. Gurley and Anderson both accomplished that in the first 30 minutes.
Gurley, the most dynamic player on the Los Angeles offense, had 80 rushing yards by halftime. But Anderson, who had 78 yards at intermission, set the tone, rumbling through huge holes and breaking tackles easily with his 5-foot-8, 225-pound, bowling-ball frame. It was as if the two tailbacks were performing their own rugged rendition of the “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” duet.
In the days leading up to the game, Gurley’s health had been a major story line. A knee injury had forced him to miss the final two games of the regular season and yield the rushing title to Elliott. After making it through an entire practice Thursday and declaring himself ready, Gurley still needed time to get loose Saturday. He rode an exercise bike often on the sideline, and early on he watched Anderson pound the Cowboys.
Anderson had run for 167 and 132 yards in the games Gurley missed. He joined the Rams in mid-December as an injury fill-in with low expectations, having been cut by Carolina and Oakland during the season. Now, he’s just another weapon for a team blessed with plenty of offense.
“I guess it was a good thing I got hurt,” Gurley joked. “C.J. was able to come in, and he was able to do his thing. He’s been doing his thing his whole career. The last three weeks have just been phenomenal.”
In the locker room afterward, McVay awarded game balls to Anderson, Gurley and Whitworth. He thought the presentations were over, but then Joe Barry, the linebackers and assistant head coach, put his arm on McVay’s shoulder and gave him a football, too.
The young innovator already has a coaching tree. Now, he has the playoff success to go with his popularity.
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