Star power won’t be lacking Saturday when the Rams play the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC divisional-round playoff game at the Coliseum. The matchup features two of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, two star running backs and celebrated players throughout the lineups.
The outcome, however, could be decided by special teams.
The Rams learned that lesson the hard way in 2017, when two miscues on kick returns helped the Atlanta Falcons defeat them in a wild-card game at the Coliseum.
Special-teams coordinator John Fassel sighed Tuesday while recalling the fumble on a kickoff and a ball that bounced off the foot of punt-return blocker Blake Countess.
Turnovers like those “are basically points” for the other team, he said.
“We made it a huge emphasis this year,” he said, “and then, for sure, going into this game.”
Saturday’s winner advances to the NFC championship game to play the New Orleans Saints or the defending Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles, who play Sunday in New Orleans.
Special-teams plays affected the outcome of both NFC wild-card games that produced this weekend’s matchups.
In the Cowboys’ 24-22 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, veteran Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski suffered a hamstring injury on a missed field-goal attempt at the end of the first half that prevented him from attempting an onside kick with slightly more than a minute left. The Cowboys earned a matchup against the second-seeded Rams, instead of the top-seeded Saints, when the Eagles upset the Chicago Bears 16-15 by deflecting a late field-goal attempt that hit an upright.
“It comes down to a field goal and, obviously, an apparent huge special-teams play, but there’s a lot of smaller ones that go into the game,” Fassel said.
That’s why the Rams are determined not to repeat the postseason mistakes made in their 26-13 loss to the Falcons.
The Rams, with Pro Bowl special-teams player Cory Littleton leading the way, produced several key blocks and turnovers during the first half of this season. But production waned a bit in the second half.
Now they are gearing up for another playoff opportunity.
Countess described last season’s postseason miscue as “a freak play.”
“You don’t anticipate stuff like that happening,” he said. “That’s why communication has to be at an all-time high.”
Pharoh Cooper, who fumbled on a kickoff return and failed to communicate the ball’s position on the punt that hit Countess’ foot, no longer plays for the Rams. The 2017 Pro Bowl player suffered an ankle injury in the season opener against the Oakland Raiders and the Rams waived him late in the season.
JoJo Natson, released by the Rams at the end of training camp, has returned punts since re-signing and replacing Cooper in Week 2. Since Cooper’s release, Natson also has returned kickoffs.
Natson did not play for the Rams in 2017, but he saw the kick-return mistakes against the Falcons.
“I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “What’s in the past is in the past. I’m just going out and giving it my best effort.”
Cowboys punt returner Tavon Austin also is expected to be motivated when he faces his former team.
Austin, the eighth pick in the 2013 draft, signed a four-year, $42-million extension with the Rams before the 2016 season. But last season, under first-year coach Sean McVay, Austin lost his punt-return job to Cooper and never found a pass-catching role in McVay’s offense.
In April, the Rams traded Austin to the Cowboys for a sixth-round draft pick.
Austin was injured through much of this season. He returned a punt for an apparent touchdown against the Seahawks, but the play was nullified by a holding penalty.
“He’s super fast, really quick and hard to tackle,” Fassel said. “We know him, but that doesn’t really matter. We’ve still got to tackle him.
“That’s much easier said than done.”
Fassel is not worried about kicker Greg Zuerlein, who made a team-record seven field goals in a victory over the Cowboys last season, or veteran punter Johnny Hekker.
And he is optimistic that the Rams will cause fumbles, rather than losing them as they did last season in the playoffs.
“Maybe we make up for it,” he said, “and get a couple out.”
Quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor and passing-game coordinator Shan Waldron were back to work after interviewing for NFL head coaching jobs last week.
Taylor met with the Denver Broncos on Thursday, the Cincinnati Bengals on Friday and the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.
The Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury on Tuesday.
“Great experience as a coach that’s aspired to have an opportunity to do something like that,” Taylor said. “I’m glad it’s done, because really the second they finish it allows you just to quickly focus back on what’s important right now.”
Waldron interviewed with the Bengals.
“It was an unbelievable experience that I’m very thankful to have had,” Waldron said. “But, I’ll worry about that again when the appropriate time comes. Right now, everything is focused on the Dallas Cowboys.”
McVay was happy for Matt LaFleur, the Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2017, who after a season of calling plays for the Tennessee Titans was hired as the Green Bay Packers coach.
“He’s one of my closest friends. … So, to see that for him, you couldn’t be more excited. He’s a great football coach.”
McVay also was pleased for Kingsbury.
“We’ll try to get after him twice a year but other than that, you know, excited for Kliff. He’s a great coach, great communicator, great understanding of how to apply pressure to a defense.”