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Rams

Rams are hoping last year’s playoff experience will help them against the Cowboys

Los Angeles Rams players and coaches reveal what it will take to defeat the Dallas Cowboys -- dubbed “America’s Team” -- in the NFC divisional playoff matchup.

The experience was new for most Rams players.

Quarterback Jared Goff had never played in an NFL playoff game. Neither had star running back Todd Gurley, nor star defensive lineman Aaron Donald, as well as less-heralded teammates.

Sean McVay also made his postseason debut as head coach last season in a wild-card game against the playoff-tested and defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.

The collective inexperience showed in a defeat that jump-started a flurry of high-profile offseason moves by the Rams.

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A year later, the Rams are back in the playoffs. A 13-3 record helped them earn a bye through the wild-card round, setting up Saturday’s NFC divisional-round game against the Dallas Cowboys at the Coliseum.

“It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve played,” Goff said. “We’re excited to go.”

Rams vs. Cowboys: How the teams match up for NFC playoff game »

Goff, 24, made the Pro Bowl this season with a productive — and occasionally spectacular — performance. The No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft often looked like a player capable of leading the Rams on a Super Bowl run.

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But NFL quarterbacks are measured by how they perform in the postseason.

Last year against the Falcons, Goff appeared nervous early in a game that turned on two special teams miscues by the Rams. The NFL’s highest-scoring team never found its rhythm in a 26-13 defeat.

“You have butterflies early on, but I wouldn’t say I was nervous,” said Goff, who completed 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. “I was excited, and I feel the same way this year.”

Goff is coming off two solid performances against the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers. Those games followed a three-game stretch that included struggles in a victory against the Detroit Lions and losses to the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles.

Some “ebbs and flows” are natural in the NFL, and Goff handled them with aplomb, passing-game coordinator Shane Waldron said.

“He’s remained ‘Steady Eddie,’ ” Waldron said, “and it’s really shown with the goal of peaking right now when the playoffs come.”

In 2017, Goff passed for 28 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. This season, he passed for 32 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.

The quarterback is a better player than he was entering the postseason a year ago, McVay said.

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“He’s gotten better physically,” McVay said. “He’s got a better understanding of what we’re trying to get done, what defenses are trying to do. ... I just think that he’s better equipped to play at a higher level.”

For the first time since the Dec. 16 loss against the Eagles, Goff will have Gurley in the backfield. The NFL touchdowns leader sat out two games because of a left knee injury, but practiced this week and is expected to be in the lineup against the Cowboys.

Last year, Gurley rushed for 101 yards but caught only four of 10 passes for which he was targeted against the Falcons. He said he and his teammates were looking forward to playing on the big stage again in a prime-time game.

“Got an urgency,” he said. “We know it’s do or die.”

Said Donald: “Amped up. Everybody’s locked in. Everybody’s just ready.”

Special teams coordinator John Fassel and several players said the Rams had learned from their playoff mistakes. Against the Falcons, former Rams kick returner Pharoh Cooper fumbled a kickoff and also failed to communicate on a punt that hit blocker Blake Countess in the foot.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has played in seven playoff games with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Rams. He has never won.

But Whitworth knows how mistakes can doom a team in the postseason.

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“Everybody’s too good, the margin’s too close,” he said. “If you don’t play your best game, you won’t win.”

This is the second year in a row that the Rams will open the playoffs at home. That advantage did not help in 2017, and it could be neutralized Saturday by a crowd that is expected to include a large contingent of Cowboys fans.

McVay and his players said throughout the week that they were not concerned.

After last year’s playoff defeat, the Rams added players such as cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and receiver Brandin Cooks. They repeated as NFC West champs and earned the No. 2 seed behind the New Orleans Saints, who play the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

“There’s a confidence that’s been earned,” McVay said. “We expect to win this game.”

Safety John Johnson does not want to repeat the experience of falling short. He is not eager to join friends on other NFL teams that did not make the playoffs or were eliminated in the wild-card round.

“They’re just doing whatever, like regular people,” Johnson said. “So, I mean, I don’t want to go home yet.

“I want to keep playing.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein


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