FRISCO, Texas – The game is between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams, but the real winner will be hot take artists across the country.
Big games have a way of doing that, regardless. Look at the way pundits are trying to bury Alabama Football after the Crimson Tide lost just its fourth game in the last four years on Monday night. People want to have an opinion they want to be right, and the ability to fire that opinion off instantaneously has created a hell of an annoying sports culture.
This is going to be something different, though. This feels like a perfect storm of hot take conditions, and the sports world is going to have a field day with it no matter what happens.
Consider the players involved. It’s the biggest, most visible franchise in football against the hot new commodity in one of the world’s media capitals. It’s a scrutinized, criticized veteran coach in Jason Garrett going against the toast of the coaching world in Sean McVay. It’s the two best running backs in the game squaring off on the same field. It’s two quarterbacks from the same draft class, selected four rounds apart.
The crucial part, of course, is that half of the characters involved have to lose. That’s the cruel nature of the playoffs. Someone is going to fail, and we’ll rush to explain what that means about the future of football – and maybe even the free world.
It’s going to be awesome. It’s also going to be terrible.
Here’s my preview of the Take Bowl.
1. I am in awe of how this game will shape the narrative for both Jason Garrett and Sean McVay. Everyone’s got something at stake in the playoffs, but it’s on another level for these two head coaches.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Cowboys fan. You know what this means for Garrett.
The much-maligned veteran coach has led his team back to the divisional round despite constant scrutiny and a massive amount of naysayers. Two months ago, the entire football world was calling for his job. And make no mistake: plenty of people would still prefer to see him lose his job, even after leading the Cowboys to an 8-2 record after the bye week.
That’s all irrelevant now. Garrett’s back in the divisional round, where he’s 0-2. If he loses to the Rams, his impressive job of getting into the playoffs will pale in comparison to his 0-3 record in the divisional round. It will represent an inability to get the Cowboys over the hump and into the NFC Championship Game.
Something similar can be said for McVay. The guy has been the toast of the NFL since he was hired, stockpiling a 24-8 regular season record and winning the NFC West twice in his two seasons in charge. The Rams have been one of the most dominant teams in the league during his tenure, and they look primed to make their first run to the Super Bowl since the 2001 season.
Of course, there’s a hell of a flip side to that. McVay’s Rams have already choked in the playoffs once. Last year they rolled into the playoffs at 11-5 as the No. 3 seed and promptly got doubled up, 26-13, by the Atlanta Falcons.
How is the narrative around McVay going to change if his team goes one-and-done in the playoffs again? Especially after starting the season on an 11-1 tear?
Here’s a hint: it probably won’t be so kind.
2. If the coaches think this game can be unfair, try being a quarterback.
What an opportunity for the two young signal-callers in this matchup. Jared Goff has rounded into looking like a No. 1 overall pick. He’s a 4,000-yard passer, he’s a two-time Pro Bowler, and he’s gotten his team into the playoffs twice in three years.
Taken 134 spots behind him, Dak Prescott is on a pretty similar trajectory. He got his first career playoff win last weekend, he’s led the Cowboys to three winning records and two playoff appearances in three seasons. He’s accounted for 4,111 total yards and 30 touchdowns this season.
By any objective measure, both guys have started their careers in incredibly promising fashion.
But playing quarterback isn’t really an objective thing, is it?
It’s a position that is completely defined by your ability to “get it done.” That’s the biggest selling point on Prescott to this point – he wins. Last weekend’s playoff win was his 33rd in 50 games. It also saw him pull off his 15th game-winning drive.
Goff hasn’t needed quite as many heroics, given the way his team has dominated games these last two years. He’s engineered five game-winning drives over the last two years, with four of those coming in 2018. But he’s still got the same opportunity Prescott has – a chance to guide his team within a game of the Super Bowl.
One of them is destined to do that on Saturday night, and glowing things will be written and said about the guy that pulls it off. But for the loser?
If Goff loses, he’s 0-2 in the playoffs despite leading a team that has rolled during the last two regular seasons. That’s how the label of “choke artist” gets applied. If Prescott loses, it’ll be his second loss in the divisional round, and he will labeled as another Cowboy quarterback who can’t restore the franchise to its rightful glory.
Welcome to the playoffs, y’all. No one cares where you were drafted or what you did to get here, we only care about wins.
3. The pressure doesn’t weigh as heavily on running backs, but the spotlight sure shines bright.
If you’ve been following the storylines leading up to this game, you might think Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley are going to run a 40-yard dash at midfield to decide the winner.
I guess it’s not surprising, given that these are the best two running backs in the league over the last three seasons, but we have certainly built this as the Back Bowl.
The stats back it up. Zeke is averaging 1,349 rushing yards per season since he entered the league, to go along with 35 total touchdowns. Gurley is averaging 1,136 rushing yards per season, with an absurd 56 touchdowns.
Gurley’s 1,831 all-purpose yards helped him inch out Elliott for first-team All-Pro this season. It’s a good bet his 21 total touchdowns, compared to Elliott’s nine, helped him win the vote.
Speaking with reporters in Los Angeles, Gurley summed it up pretty nicely:
“Obviously, two top running backs. But, it's not really about us, just a team game,” he said. “Obviously, we've got to hype it up, Zeke versus Gurley. It'll be a good game. He's a great back. I guess, I'm not too bad myself."
Both players are the focal point for their offense. Both players will need to have success to give their teams a shot at success.
And as much as they might want to downplay it, the stakes are high on an individual level, as well as for their teams. The victorious running back goes on to be the toast of the NFL – in the conference championship and potentially beyond. The loser slips into the obscurity of the offseason. Just one more example of the cruelty of the playoffs.
4. It gets buried under the other storylines in this game, but one in particular stands out to me.
As a self-described draft nerd, one of my most vivid memories covering this beat was the 2014 Senior Bowl, three weeks after the Cowboys wrapped up an 8-8 season.
Jimmy Garoppolo and Derek Carr took center stage that week as top quarterback prospects. There were other eventual NFL starts on hand, like Telvin Smith, Dee Ford, James White and Gabe Jackson.
But the thing that’ll always stand out to me was the epic battle between Aaron Donald and Zack Martin, who played for the North Team as the best two linemen in the game. Donald came into the game after a record-setting career at Pitt, where he rewrote the Panthers’ record books. Martin came in from Notre Dame, where he was an All-American left tackle who projected to be a top-notch guard.
The two were teammates, so they didn’t square off during the game itself. But their battles during practices were absolutely legendary.
“Played against him every year in college, too,” Martin said. “I played tackle in college, but I always knew about him and how dominating he was and coming out, got to go against him a couple of times since in the league.”
It’d be an exaggeration to say that I knew then, in January 2014, that Martin and Donald would become the best players in the league at their respective positions. But it was plainly obvious that they were destined to become great players.
With 10 Pro Bowls and nine All-Pro selections between them in their first five years in the league, the only thing missing is a playoff run.
5. I’m excited to see this theory get put to the test this weekend.
After what happened in 2016, there’s a prevailing wisdom that it’s better to go into the playoff hot than sit around for a week or two. The Cowboys sat their starters in Week 17 of the 2016 season, and then they took a week off. When they finally kicked off against Green Bay in the divisional round, they were trailing the Packers, 21-3, before anyone could bat an eyelash.
Well, they’re officially on the opposite side of that equation this year. For that matter, it applies to both NFC matchups. The Cowboys and Eagles have been clawing for their playoff lives since November, as both teams finished the season hot and snatched a playoff spot despite slow starts.
Meanwhile, the Rams and Saints both have coasted into the postseason after insanely hot starts. They racked up wins throughout the first three months of the season, and they started resting starters before Christmas even rolled around.
How’s that going to play out this year? The Cowboys are riding high, having won eight of their last nine games, and rightfully so. There’s something to be said for being hot.
At the same time, teams typically earn those bye weeks because they’re incredibly good. Since the league realigned to its current format in 2002, the NFC’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are 23-9 in the divisional round of the playoffs. In fact, No. 2 seeds have actually been a little bit better than No. 1 seeds, going 12-4 as opposed to 11-5 in those games.
In those 16 years, eight NFC Championship Games have pitted No. 1 against No. 2 – including four of the last six. It’s been a decade since the NFC Championship Game didn’t involve either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed – which is what would have to happen for the Cowboys to host the game against Philadelphia.
None of this is to say the Cowboys can’t win. Past trends have nothing to do with this game. Although it’s certainly an indicator that the home teams have an advantage in these matchups.
Whatever happens, it’ll make a heck of an argument in the “rust vs. rest” debate.
6. I’m not going to bother picking the spreads. It’s the playoffs. You either win, or as DeMarcus Lawrence said: “you stay your ass home.”
My Cowboys pick will be up on the site later this week. Here are my other three picks. See y’all on the other side of the weekend, for better or for worse.
Colts over CHIEFS
PATRIOTS over Chargers
SAINTS over Eagles