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Column: Rams knock the ‘D’ out of Dallas with their offensive line

Rams-Cowboys
Rams running back C.J. Anderson (35) breaks through a big hole for a gain against the Cowboys during the first half Saturday
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

What caused the D.C. shutdown?

If D.C. stood for the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night, the culprit was the wall.

An impenetrable moving barrier of Rams blockers shoved aside the vaunted Cowboys defense, running roughshod over a collection of tacklers who had just dominated the No. 1 ground game in football.

The Rams ran for a staggering 273 yards in their 30-22 victory over the Cowboys, moving to within one victory of the Super Bowl with a formula they have used in their last three games.

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After the loss to Philadelphia in Week 15, coach Sean McVay essentially said the team was going to go find a formula that wins, and wins in the crunch time of December and January. That means pounding the ball. Forget that noise about McVay being the quarterback whisperer. He reminded everyone Saturday night that he’s nimble and flexible with his game plans, and that he’s willing to adjust and change when necessary.

All the talk before this divisional playoff game was about how badly Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys would trample the Rams defense, ranked 23rd against the run.

Instead, it was the Rams who left cleat marks on the Cowboys’ heart. It was the first time in Rams postseason history they had two 100-yard rushers in a game.

C.J. Anderson had 123 yards in 23 carries and two touchdowns, and Todd Gurley finished with 115 in 16 carries and one touchdown.

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After five seasons with Denver in which he won a Super Bowl and played in a Pro Bowl, Anderson was released by the Broncos after last season and bounced from Carolina to Oakland and finally the Rams before he could truly resume his career. And in the building Saturday was his old quarterback, Peyton Manning, who brought his son to the game when the boy requested to see the Rams.

“I guess it was my turn,” Anderson said of parting ways with Denver. “I was talking to Peyton, he was up here today, and just having some conversations with him about when he got released from the [Indianapolis] Colts. He felt like he could still play, and he came to Denver and lit it up. Kind of feels like that.”

Call him Ripper Anderson. He ran with such confidence, on one long carry he was run out of bounds on the Dallas sideline, then comically plopped down on the Cowboys bench for a breather, bracketed by two startled offensive linemen.

It was not supposed to go this way. Dallas was going to gobble up the clock, keep the high-octane Rams offense standing on the sideline with hands on hips and grind out the Cowboys’ first second-round victory since the 1995 season.

But the Rams offensive line had something else in mind. That unit — Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein — blew open Texas-sized holes in a Dallas defense that limited the top-ranked Seattle running game to 73 yards in a wild-card win. That was less than half the Seahawks’ 160-yard average.

“When we watched the tape and were getting ready for [the Cowboys], we felt we were going to be able to come out and execute exactly how we did tonight,” Sullivan said. “Whereas everybody is happy the game went the way it did, nobody is surprised. We expected to go do that.”

The Rams rushed for 170 yards in the first half, the most the Cowboys have surrendered in a half since at least 2000. Coming into Saturday night, 178 yards were the most Dallas had given up on the ground in a game.

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L.A. made the Cowboys defensive front look as soft as the rain-soaked turf. Actually, the field itself wasn’t as slippery or loose as it might have been, but the sidelines were as muddy as Woodstock.

Anderson has been an unbelievable find for the Rams, picked up after Gurley was injured in the Week 15 loss to Philadelphia. He ran for 167 and 132 yards in the final two games, against Arizona and San Francisco, and most important afforded the Rams the luxury of letting Gurley recover.

Saturday night, Anderson was like the butt end of a swinging log, lowering his shoulder and blasting into tacklers with punishing abandon.

If Gurley had any rust, it sloughed off quickly, as he glided his way to a 35-yard touchdown run late in the first half.

It was only a couple of years ago that the Rams had the worst offensive line in the league, or close to it. The problems ran deep and seemed like they would take years to fix.

Then, in with the McVay regime came Whitworth and Sullivan, who sparked a dramatic revival, coupled with a retooled offense that played to the strengths of Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff. The turnaround was dramatic and almost inexplicable.

This season, the Rams had the rare distinction of the same five starters throughout the season. That’s a huge component of success.

The Fox broadcasters noted that Whitworth, Saffold and Sullivan had more than 400 starts among them, yet a combined total of one playoff victory. Whitworth, who spent the bulk of his career in Cincinnati, came into the Cowboys game 0-7 in the postseason.

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Now, the Rams are one win away from the Super Bowl.

“This is my first playoff win ever,” receiver Josh Reynolds said, shaking his head.

“This is just surreal.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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