THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Marcus Peters was in Amari Cooper’s face from the Cowboys’ opening drive until the postgame handshakes, where the Los Angeles Rams cornerback gave one last shove to the Dallas receiver.
Peters didn’t win all of his matchups with Cooper. In fact, his unnecessary roughness penalty from his first scrap with Cooper led directly to Dallas’ first touchdown in the clubs’ divisional playoff game Saturday night.
But for better or worse, Peters also exemplified his team’s determination not to be pushed around by anyone — and sometimes, they’ll even start the fights.
With their 30-22 victory over the Cowboys, the Rams (14-3) are headed to the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday with an incendiary attitude and renewed proof of their toughness on both sides of the ball.
“Our sense of focus and the sense of urgency have gone up tremendously,” guard Rodger Saffold said at the team’s training complex Sunday while the Rams waited to find out who they would play.
The Rams have built a reputation for cerebral, clever play during two seasons of coach Sean McVay’s influential offensive schemes. But one big difference between last season’s team, which lost its first playoff game, and this season’s NFC championship-bound squad is the Rams’ provocative new defensive players, led by Peters and fellow cornerback Aqib Talib, along with a team-wide embrace of physical, disruptive play.
The Rams know they’ll have to be tough again when they visit New Orleans for the third time this season, counting a preseason trip to the Big Easy. Los Angeles took its first loss of the year at the Superdome on Nov. 4, falling 45-35.
“I think we match up really well (with the Saints),” Saffold said. “I think we’ll have a better plan against them on the second go-round.”
The Rams also will have Talib, who was out with an injury when Los Angeles native Michael Thomas made 12 catches for 211 yards as the Saints ran wild in the Rams’ secondary.
“The Saints have a highly controlled game plan,” Rams edge rusher Dante Fowler said. “They’ve got everything down pat, and they’re going to execute it. You’ve just got to try your best to stop it. They’ve got great offensive linemen and a Hall of Fame quarterback and a two-headed monster in the backfield, and Michael Thomas is a great receiver. We’ve just got to come with it.”
The Rams are respectfully confident heading into the chance to play for a Super Bowl berth — but these Rams also have an attitude, and it’s taking them far.
At about the same time Peters and Cooper were shoving each other instead of shaking hands, Talib interrupted Jared Goff’s postgame interview with a joyous expletive on live television.
Extracurricular exploits aside, the Rams are in their first NFC title game in 17 years because of their physical attitude in the way they manhandled the Cowboys on both sides of the line. Dallas entered the Coliseum with one of the NFL’s top rushing defenses along with their own powerful rushing offense led by NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott, yet the Rams dominated on the ground.
Los Angeles’ rushing offense was historically good, with C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley both topping 100 yards rushing on the way to a franchise-record 273. Both backs gave the credit to their offensive line, which led the Rams to average a whopping 5.7 yards per carry.
The Rams’ defense spent most of the first half on the sideline watching as their offensive line carved chunks out of the Dallas defense. Fowler could only smile when left tackle Andrew Whitworth led the blocking for Gurley’s 35-yard touchdown run.
“They played very physical, lights out,” Fowler said. “The intensity that Whitworth brought, that set the tone. Especially with that touchdown that Gurley had, I think that was the real tone-setter. That was the difference in the game. If you really look at the play, the block that Whitworth made for the touchdown, that set the tone.
That’s when I knew we were going to win the game.”
When the Rams’ defense finally got on the field, they showed toughness of their own. Elliott managed just 47 yards on 20 carries, acknowledging afterward that the Rams “dominated us up front.”
The Rams’ offensive line has been respected as one of the NFL’s best for the past two years while Gurley reigned as one of the NFL’s top running backs, yet the five linemen relished another chance to show what they could do on their biggest stage yet.
“The coaches saying they would just put it on our back and let us do our thing, that gave us a huge confidence boost and that shared sense of responsibility to just go out there and work a little bit harder on this one,” Saffold said.