FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Before he knew the next opponent, owner Jerry Jones likened the recovery of his Dallas Cowboys from 3-5 to their first playoff win in four years to a boom-or-bust wagon train headed to California.
Lo and behold, Dallas is set for a divisional game Saturday night against the Los Angeles Rams, not far from where the journey began in training camp north of LA.
“You’re going to have times when you’re going to have to reinvent the wheel during a season,” Jones said after a 24-22 wild-card win over Seattle. “Like the old wagon train guys. We’re going to burn some of these wagons on the way out to California, break them down, float the Mississippi River. But I’m going to make it to California. I hope you’re on the train with me.”
The reinvention for the Cowboys (11-6) was a midseason trade that sent their first-round draft pick this coming spring to Oakland for receiver Amari Cooper. Dallas lost to Tennessee to drop to 3-5 in the first game with a new No. 1 threat, but has won eight of nine games since then.
The other big change, also during the open week, was firing first-year offensive line coach Paul Alexander and promoting someone familiar with what had helped the Cowboys mold one of the best blocking units in football in former player and assistant line coach Marc Colombo.
All along, one of the league’s best defenses helped keep the Cowboys afloat.
“It’s a credit to your coaching staff and players that when you bring players in like Cooper and you bring them in in the middle of the season that they can incorporate them into a team that can really execute and really have success,” Jones said. “That says a lot about the team, too.”
The Cowboys saw this resurgent version of the Rams, led by quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley, early in the 2017 season.
In his first year, coach Sean McVay led LA to the NFC West title in the franchise’s first winning season in 14 years, including a 35-30 victory at the Cowboys after falling behind 24-13.
“That’s a long time ago,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Teams change year by year. Teams grow within the year. Obviously we’ll go back throughout the whole year as the week goes on and continue to evaluate them. They’re a very impressive team in all three phases.”
The Rams (13-3) cruised to the division title and another first-round bye as the No. 2 seed while improving by two wins, although they lost twice in December following an 11-1 start.
The Cowboys, seeded fourth in the NFC, were inches away from going to top-seeded New Orleans instead. Cody Parkey’s potential winning field goal for Chicago hit the left upright and crossbar, sending Philadelphia to face Drew Brees and company.
“I was asked a bunch about who would you rather play, this in the dome or over here in LA,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “I never cared. Really it’s just going to be me, man on a football field getting after it. That’s all I think about it anyway.”
In some ways, the Cowboys and Rams think of each other as friendly neighbors. Dallas has gone to Oxnard for training camp every year since 2010, and Jones played a pivotal role in getting league approval of LA owner Stan Kroenke’s move from St. Louis three years ago.
The Rams’ new stadium doesn’t open until 2020, so the first playoff meeting between these teams since 1986 will be in the same place as that 20-0 LA victory: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Cowboys held training camp in Southern California back then as well.
“I expect Cowboys nation to show up anywhere we go,” Crawford said. “Been here for a while, and everybody know it’s America’s Team. A lot of people can try to call that past, but it is what it is. The star is definitely alive.”
And the Cowboys are still kicking after a 3-5 start.
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