Spagnola: Cowboys Balling Out Against All Odds

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FRISCO, Texas – Why not the Cowboys.

Yeah, why not?

Look, get it, these are the Los Angeles Rams they are teeing it up against on Sunday at 3:25 p.m., and it is out there in L.A. at SoFi Stadium where the Rams won in their inaugural game during the COVID-disrupted 2020 season over the Cowboys.

Yes, the Rams have beaten the Cowboys three of the last four meetings, the past two of those in L.A., including that second-round playoff game during the 2018 season, only the fourth time since winning Super Bowl XXX that 1995 season the Cowboys had advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

And these are the Rams, Matthew Stafford and them, the defending Super Bowl champions. Understood.

But you know what about all this defending stuff? This is not some guy defending his heavyweight boxing title. That's the same fighter.

Here, these are not even your eight-month-year-old's Rams. Especially on offense, where they likely will be playing without six of their 11 starters in that come-from-behind 23-20 Super Bowl victory over Cincinnati. No Odell. No Van Jefferson. Three of their five starting offensive linemen either gone or out with injury.

And defensively, some guy named Von Miller, gone, along with three other starters on that Super Bowl team. Not even the same punter.

Plus, the 3-1 Cowboys, riding a three-game winning streak behind backup quarterback Cooper Rush, meet the 2-2 Rams, though both of their losses are to last year's NFC and AFC Conference Championship game losers.

Yet, Draft Kings has installed the Rams as 5½-point favorites, evidently not impressed with the Cowboys defeating last year's AFC champion Cincinnati and the currently 3-1 Giants.

But guess this betting site did not check with Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy when setting the line. Because Thursday morning during his press conference, when the media informed him, claiming he had no idea, that the Cowboys were the underdogs and by 5½ points.

"We're underdogs?" McCarthy asked rhetorically. "We're good. All right, just wrote my Saturday night speech. I'm good," previously saying he's never really used point spreads in a team meeting.

"But I'll just say this: We're nobody's underdog. So, if you need a quote."

Sure did, thanks buddy. And don't think this one would have penetrated my somewhat creative mind.

Plus, like that McCarthy got no arguments from his players.

"We aren't," wide receiver CeeDee Lamb whole-heartedly agreed. "That is how we feel toward any team we play."

And you can be darn sure Micah Parsons agreed, dismissing this "underdog" stuff, too, saying, "That's versus everybody. We do what we do."

Or the owner for that matter, Jerry Jones pointing out on his 105.3 The Fan radio segment, "I just love Mike's response."

Well, now it's time for the Cowboys to just do what they do, and as we know betting lines are set with the idea of the house making money on both sides of the coin, and why they call all this "gambling."

Now, we know the Cowboys haven't exactly lit up the scoreboard these first four games, scoring just 3, 20, 23 and 25 for 71 points, a very humble 17.75-point average. And not just points, the Cowboys have only scored six touchdowns, with 30 of their points coming on 10 Brett Maher field goals. No more than the two touchdowns scored in each of the past three games with Rush at quarterback after scoring but a field goal in the opening 19-3 loss to Tampa Bay with Dak Prescot playing three and a half quarters before fracturing that bone in his right hand.

But hey, Michael Gallup is back after missing the first three games. So is starting guard Connor McGovern, having played just seven snaps in the opener and missing the next two games. Safety Jayron Kearse, last year's leading tackler, is back after missing the past three games with a sprained knee. Rookie Tyler Smith now has four starts of NFL experience. Oh, Rush does, too, the Cowboys knowing they just can't be turning the ball over and must improve their 30.2 third down conversion percentage, 31st in the NFL.

"We've just got to score more," said Lamb, leading the team with 23 receptions and two touchdowns.

No doubt.

Let's face it, though. There is no secret to why the Cowboys are trying to win their fourth straight. A whole lot of defense, having given up no more than19 points in any of their first four games for the first time since 1973. And no more than one touchdown in each of those four games.

A recipe McCarthy cherishes.

"You want your defense to be the thermostat because the thermostat regulates the game, and they are clearly the thermostat for us, making no bones about it," he said. "They're going to keep us in striking distance just the way they're playing. … They are definitely our thermostat."

No kidding. When you give up just 19, 17, 16 and 10 as the Cowboys have so far, why, that gives a team a good chance of winning. That is, if managing to score more than the three points the Cowboys did in the opener against Tampa Bay.

And in this one, let's reveal the decisive factor come Sunday afternoon at SoFi where they will have a much better idea of where the stationary game clock is located this time around against the Rams. The Cowboys have been feasting on opposing quarterbacks, second in the NFL with 15 sacks. But it's not just the sacks. Undo pressure, too, a combination of 59 QB hits and pressures. Add in 14 tackles for losses and four interceptions.

"We feel like in the defensive room the only ones who can beat us is us," said DeMarcus Lawrence, owner of three sacks, along with fellow defensive end Dorance Armstrong, both one behind the team-leader Parsons.

If this defense can bottle up the Rams running game, something they haven't been able to do in the past two losses to the Rams, then the Cowboys can unleash their rush men in Stafford's face. Problem is, in those past two losses the Rams ran right over the Cowboys, going 40 for 153 and two touchdowns in the 20-17 win in 2020 and get this, 48 for 273 and three touchdowns in the 30-22 playoff loss that 2018 season.

And so far, three of the Cowboys' four opponents gave gone for more than 100 yards, 152, 167 and 142 – 101 of those in the first half this past Sunday by Washington. Can't have it.

But if they can stack up the Rams running game, then Stafford's struggles will continue. My gosh, he's been sacked 16 times, seven of those this past Monday night by San Francisco, the Niners also hitting him another 11 times with 17 more pressures. No wonder Stafford has more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (four).

In fact, after throwing a touchdown pass in every game last season on the way to winning the Super Bowl, Stafford hasn't thrown a TD pass now in back-to-back games, his first such streak since Weeks 15-16 with Detroit in 2016. And just the three field goals scored against San Francisco in the 24-9 loss is the first time the Rams haven't scored a touchdown in a game since the 2020 season finale when starting backup QB John Wolford.

And to think that 2021 Rams team scored 52 touchdowns in the 17-game season, right at three a game, while scoring at least 28 points in 10 of those games.

"I'm not sitting here going to make excuses for why we have or haven't done the things that are in alignment with maybe the expectations we have, but there's a lot of football to be played," Rams head coach Sean McVay said earlier in the week. "The story isn't written yet. We do have a say in how that story is written."

But if that written story is to be improved, Stafford's pedestrian 81.4 QB rating must improve for the Rams' 28th-ranked offense to more closely resemble last year's potent group that finished fourth and second in passing offense. And they must find more offensive weapons than just throwing the ball to Cooper Kupp, currently leading the NFL with 42 receptions for 404 yards, and on a ridiculous 178-catch pace over 17 games.

Beware the Kupp for sure, Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis

"Got to minimize their passing game," Parsons said. "Can't let Stafford do what he do."

No, they can't. This defense must hold the Rams to a reasonable number of points if Rush is to become the first Cowboys quarterback to win his first five NFL starts with a star on his helmet. If this team is to go to 4-1 and remain at worst just one game behind the NFC East leading Eagles (4-0) playing at Arizona on Sunday then the Rams running game must be bottled up, too.

And the Cowboys know it.

"Always in the game," the veteran cornerback Brown maintained if the defensive guys do what they do. "Always in the game."

So, let's go, and as McCarthy said, "We're looking at this as a national game. Obviously it's the Cowboys and the Rams, and I think there is going to be a whole lot of urgency come Sunday afternoon."

Especially for the indignant, uh, "underdog" Cowboys trying to beat all odds.

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