Overview: What can we say about the game between the New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Rams previously not mentioned? It is possibly the most-anticipated matchup of the 2019 regular season, and indeed the most prominent game this weekend. While it hardly qualifies as a ''must-win" game for either team in terms of division standings, it is the latest chapter in what has become perhaps the NFL's biggest non-divisional rivalry. Moreover, even though it is only the second game of the season, it is not a wild exaggeration to think this game could well end up being a tie-breaker for playoff-seeding come the postseason.
Rams Offense Vs. Saints Defense: For all of the talk about Drew Brees vs. Jared Goff, this game could well be decided by which team can run the ball more effectively. The Saints gave up 180 yards rushing in Monday night's last-second win over the Houston Texans. Meanwhile, the Rams win over the Carolina Panthers seemed to be a tale of two Todd Gurley's. He looked so bad in the first half that NFL analyst Tony Gonzalez said at halftime that he was clearly "not right." However, in the second half, Gurley rushed for 89 yards and looked like the Todd Gurley Rams fans have gotten used to watching over the last few years. Malcolm Brown also played a vital role in the win, scoring two touchdowns and effectively spelling Gurley in much of the first half. Brown also received the majority of the carries inside the red-zone, where his power-running, smashmouth style played well last week.
The Saints, meanwhile, need linebackers Alex Anzalone and Demario Davis to step up their games this week in rush defense. Giving up 180 yards rushing against the Rams could be fatal.
When the Rams do throw the ball, they need their offensive line to give Jared Goff time, because he is not the same quarterback when he is under pressure. A crucial battle upfront will feature Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein against Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan in a battle of two of the league's better players at their respective positions.
The newcomers to the Rams line, center Brian Allen and guard Joseph Noteboom put in strong performances last week against a talented Panthers defensive front. They will need to repeat that play on Sunday.
The Rams will likely try to pick on Saints cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Eli Apple, as did the Texans with some success last week, avoiding Saints best corner, Marshon Lattimore. The Rams particularly like the matchup of slot receiver Cooper Kupp against Williams. Kupp was not available in last year's NFC title game, and his return could be a critical factor in this game.
Rams Defense vs. Saints Offense: First task for the Rams defense will be to contain Saints running back Alvin Kamara on Sunday. That is easier said than done, especially since Saints head coach Sean Payton is a master at taking advantage of favorable matchups for Kamara on defense. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who features a similar skill set as Kamara, had a monster day for Carolina last week. Both backs are especially dangerous as receivers, and the Rams have to find a way to limit Kamara in the passing game especially. Whether Wade Phillips can find a formula for doing that may very well determine the outcome of this game
The crucial other performers for the Saints is wide-receiver, Micheal Thomas. It is worth noting that in the Saints regular-season win over the Rams last year, Thomas went off, notching 213 receiving yards, much of it against Rams cornerback Marcus Peters. It is no accident that in the Rams title game win, Thomas was virtually a non-factor. Whether the Rams can contain Thomas again remains to be seen, and could be a massive factor in this game.
The other crucial battle here could be the Rams defensive front versus the Saints offensive line. As high as Brees is, he is not the most mobile quarterback. He typically makes up for that by getting rid of the ball quickly. However, no quarterback likes facing a pass rush that forces quick decisions and causes mistakes.
Again referring back to the two games between these teams last year, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was kept in check during the Saints regular-season win but was much more of a problem for the Saints in the 2019 NFC Championship. It is a safe bet that the Saints will double and even triple-team AD on Sunday. That should open up some opportunities for Rams outside linebackers Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews to apply some pressure. Fowler registered two sacks last week against the Panthers and was a crucial factor in the Rams title game win in New Orleans last season.
Two other players to keep an eye on Sunday are Rams inside linebacker Corey Littleton and former Rams and Saints tight end Jared Cook. Littleton came up huge against Carolina last week, intercepting a pass, a forced fumble and generally wreaking havoc. Cook, meanwhile, torched the Rams for 135 yards in receptions last year as a member of the Oakland Raiders and could be the x-factor for the Saints on Sunday.
Special Teams: The Rams got unprecedented weak special teams performance last week, and it almost cost them the game against the Panthers. Johnny Hekker had one punt blocked and another tipped, although he did have several booming punts that pinned the Panthers back as well. Placekicker Greg Zuerlein likewise had a mixed day, nailing three field goals while missing one. The Saints will very likely try to pressure Hekker again. As for Zuerlein, well, nobody is perfect. We guess that Special Teams Coach John "Bones' Fassell will have addressed the problems that led to last weeks kicking issues. The Rams typically have the best special teams in the league, and they need to return to that form on Sunday.
The Saints special teams are also usually outstanding, and kicker Will Lutz proved his worth on Monday night by kicking a 58-yard field goal to beat the Texans as time expired.
We are going to check this box for the Rams, but its close. The Rams have to play better in this area than they did against the Panthers, or they may very well lose this game.
Prediction: Last time we checked 1.5 points favored the Rams. Home field advantage generally is worth 3 points, so apparently, the oddsmakers think New Orleans is a slightly better team on a neutral field. There is no doubt that New Orleans will be out for revenge for the infamous "non-call" in last year's NFC title game.
On the other hand, the Saints are also a dome team that will be playing on natural grass, out in the weather. The Rams are a better team at home, and the Saints will not have the advantage of crowd noise disrupting the Rams on offense.
A final factor could be the refs, who will be under a microscope in this game. Will they try to overcompensate for the infamous blunder in last year's title game? We hope not.
Rams 34, New Orleans 31