I would not normally begin an NFL playoff preview with a story about special teams. But to help understand what kind of sneaky edges that Sean McVay’s L.A. Rams can find in critical moments, a glance at the punt team is better than a thousand lectures.
Johnny Hekker is the punter for the Mountain Goats, and he’s our generation’s closest thing to Ray Guy. Rams supporters from St. Louis and SoCal alike have marveled at Hekker’s brilliance on 4th down. He’s just a punter – but he’s a game-changer too.
From an opposing head coach POV, the veteran is a nightmare that can be described as follows. Suppose you’re coaching against the Rams and tell the team at halftime, “alright, let’s get them stopped right after the touchback. Then we’ll get good field position, and go down and score.” When the 3rd quarter begins, you get the exact scenario you were hoping for as the defense forces a quick 3-and-out. Maybe even a sack for lost yardage. The Rams have to give up the ball from the shadow of their own end zone.
Then Hekker comes in the game. He punts it 73 yards. Out of bounds.
NFL coaches have always hoped to successfully “coffin-corner” or “pooch” punt from midfield when the opportunity arises. But with Hekker in his pocket, McVay has the ability to call a coffin-corner punt from almost anywhere.
Dak Prescott may lead the Dallas Cowboys to another victory on Saturday, but unless the defense forces some turnovers from the Rams, he’s not likely to do it on a short field. Perhaps that is playing in the minds of Las Vegas bookies and high-rollers. For whatever reason, the ‘Boys are a (+7) underdog on the point spread for the NFC Divisional Round.
Late-Season (Navy) Blues
Silver Star Nation is hoping that L.A.’s more vulnerable-looking efforts late in the 2018 regular season were not part of an illusion. Whether at the Coliseum or elsewhere the Rams have struggled against fine teams and piddled against mediocre ones.
The Rams eked-out a victory at home over the Green Bay Packers on October 28th, thanks to nice games from QB Jared Goff and tailback Todd Gurley. But the ball control disappeared when the Eagles flew into LAX in December. Goff was intercepted as Philadelphia held L.A. to only 82 yards and escaped with a 30-23 victory that boosted the Iggles’ playoff chances considerably.
Things were even worse in Chicago. A pre-holiday trip to the Windy City ended in despair as the Bears’ unholy defense poured it on. Goff was intercepted 4 times as the squad barely managed 200 yards of offense and were squeezed into a 15-6 defeat.
It’s funny that Mike Ditka says he doesn’t like snakes. His alma mater NFL franchise has built a defense like a python. Yet despite the December drubbing, it’s the Rams, not the Bears, who are still standing in the NFC playoffs.
The questions around Goff do not affect the excellent OL play, fearsome RB, solid defense and 4th-down innovation that the Cowboys can expect to compete with on Saturday. But if Prescott is able to out-play his counterpart, all bets are off (or on). Ezekiel Elliott is presently every bit of the back Todd Gurley is, and Big D will bring its own bovine OL to Los Angeles.
Dallas will face a potential field-position disadvantage playing against Hekker. Another ill-timed interception from Goff, and Dak might take advantage of a rare short field to give that ‘Boys momentum in the Divisional playoff.
No List Equals a Miss – I often rationalize my upset-picks with some convoluted narrative. This time, I’d like to borrow from the “listicle” genre and give you some solid, concise reasons why Dallas can upset L.A. this weekend:
Bay City Footballers – Dallas was pretty darn good in prime-time last Saturday night. The Cowboys won the 2nd half easily and beat the proud Seahawks a lot worse than the 24-22 final score indicates. Prescott continues to resurrect his chances to become a long-term franchise QB, the running game is humming, and the defense is running to the ball.
Amari’s Atari Ball – The new hired-gun is thriving at WR. This season’s College Football Playoff taught NFL fans a lesson in game management, as in, there’s nothing like being able convert on 3rd down and long. The former Raider is giving the Cowboys a chance to do it consistently.
Silver Skipper – To quote Muhammad Ali, “everybody wanna talk about” Sean McVay, but give Cowboy skipper Jason Garrett some credit too. He out-foxed Pete Carroll in the Wild Card Round and has an offensive line that could keep Dak in 2nd-down-and-manageable all night long against an L.A. team that values field position.
Elliott’s Excellence – The tailback is in his prime and chewing-up yards and 1st downs when the Cowboys most need them. Jerry Jones’ blueprint for the Silver Star is old-fashioned – he wants reliable stars at QB, RB and WR with a physical, tough supporting cast. Elliott is now an established piece of the championship puzzle.
The squad has renewed confidence in Prescott. Dak’s stat line against the Seahawks wasn’t perfect, but postseason stat lines don’t have to be, not for signal-callers who win and exhibit leadership. September’s woes brought nightmares to mind about an offense that would fold in the clutch. Dak has settled and relaxed his posse on its way to the NFL playoffs.
I’m loving the Cowboys ATS unless the number tightens to (-6.5). They might not win, but there’s a 75%-plus chance they’ll hang tight at the Coliseum.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.