Somehow we all knew it would come down to these two teams for the NFC title, probably because they were clearly the best two teams in the conference this season. Odds makers are giving the New Orleans Saints the edge by a field goal, and the Saints is notoriously tough at home. They will have the advantage of a loud home crowd, and the confidence of beaten the Rams after just a couple of months ago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Whether that will all add up to a win for the Saints remains to be seen, however, this is not that same Rams team that lost there back in November, and if they can run the ball effectively the same as last week against Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams could very well spoil the victory party in the dome.
Rams Offense vs Saints Defense
The first question is, which Rams offense shows up to play? The explosive passing attack that racked up 54 points in a win over Kansas City Chiefs, or the ''ground and pound" bulldozer that rushed for 273 yards against the Cowboys a week ago? Our guess is it will be a little of both, but probably with a heavy emphasis on the running game.
The emergence of C.J. Anderson, who has rushed for 499 yards in just three games, in addition to all-world superstar Todd Gurley, provides the Rams a two-headed monster that rivals the famed Alvin Kamara-Mark Ingram duo of the Saints. In fact, they might even be a little better, in my humble opinion. The loss of Saints defensive tackle and run-stuffer extraordinaire Sheldon Rankins, who suffered a torn achilles in last week's win over the Philadelphia Eagles, is bad news for the Saints in this game.
The Saints had one of the league's best run defenses in 2018, but whether they can be that good on Sunday without Rankins remains to be seen.
The good news for the Saints is that they tend to rotate their defensive linemen in and out throughout the game. Having said this, it still hurts the Saints in obvious running situations, as Rankins would have very likely been in the game. Even though the Saints has a very good defensive line, including Marcus Davenport selected in the first of the the 2018 NFL Draft and Cam Jordan (who racked up 12 sacks this season), both at defensive end. Jordan is a pass-rushing demon, and one of the key matchups in this game will be his battle with Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein.
That matchup takes on added importance because the belief around the league is that you can throw on Saints corners Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, and slot-corner P.J. Williams. The Rams are still without wide receiver Cooper Kupp, which hurts, but his replacement, Josh Reynolds, could start for many other NFL teams. The offense does have one of their premier wide receiving duos in the league in speedster Brandin Cooks and the very steady Robert Woods, who also will probably see a few carries on jet sweeps that the Rams enjoy calling. Quarterback Jared Goff threw for 392 yards in the loss to the Saints in November. He may not get that many yards this time around if the Rams go smash mouth, as we sort of expect, but he is certainly capable of putting up those type of numbers, especially if the Saints jumps out to a big lead again.
Saints Offense vs. Rams Defense
This is where the Saints won the game in November, racking up 45 points. Wide receiver Micheal Thomas had a career day, racking up over 200 receiving yards, including a back-breaking 73-yard touchdown on a blown coverage against the Rams by corner Marcus Peters late in the game (in fairness to Peters he was expecting help from over the top by a safety). The Rams will have cornerback Aqib Talib on Sunday, and he may see a fair amount of Thomas. The Rams defense gave up on average of 31 points a game this season without Talib versus only 17 ppg with him in the lineup. Holding the Saints to 17 points at home on this game is probably not going to happen, bit if Talib can at minimize Thomas to let’s say about 100 yards or so, it would be a major victory to the Rams chances to win this game.
Another thing the Saints were able to accomplish last game, was they were able to contain the Rams superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who didn't register a sack and for one few times this season, was a virtual non-factor. Much of the credit went to Saints guard Andrus Peat, and they will be counting on him against the Rams again on Sunday. Peat played in last week's win over Philadelphia with a broken hand, and while a week isn't enough time for such an injury to heal, he's insisting he is "good to go." The Saints overall have one of the league's better O-lines, and they are helped in pass protection by the fact that Brees gets rid of the ball extremely fast. But at least as important to the Rams hopes for a victory will be their ability to keep Kamara and Ingram under contained. They did the job last week, holding the NFL rushing leader Zeke Elliot to a paltry 47 yards, but that same rushing defense was really bad during the regular season, giving up over five yards per rush. Kamara is also a major threat as a receiver out of the backfield, and the Ram's linebackers will need to play well in this game. That could be a problem, because as a unit they were not very good for majority of the season.
Ndamukong Suh had maybe his best game as a Ram last week against the Cowboys. Have the monster awaken just at the right time? The Rams certainly hope so.
Check the box for the Rams here, but not by much. The Saints kicker Will Lutz, is generally steady and reliable as a placekicker, and has an advantage in being familiar with the surface at the Mercedes-Benz Dome. The Rams return game has been somewhat disappointing this season, and they have an annoying habit of piling up illegal block penalties. One of the key turning points in the game these two teams played in November was a fake field goal try by holder (and Rams punter) Johnny Hekker that was ruled as being short of the first first down. We say '"ruled" but a lot of people thought the Saints got the benefit of some ''home cooking" on the spot by the referees. We get it, blaming the refs for a loss is considered bad manners (or just plain whiny) by many...but if you saw the game, you had to wonder. Hopefully this game won't turn on a decision by the officials.
Edge Rams (slight)
This Sean (Payton) vs Sean (McVay) matchup is one of the best coaching chess matches you will ever see. Both are considered offensive masterminds, both are aggressive and unconventional. But only one has a Super Bowl ring (so far). But the Rams have two of the top assistants anywhere in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and special teams coach John (Bones) Fassell. Let's call it a tossup.
This is an extremely tough call. In a game like this almost anything could happen, and probably will. The Saints have a home-field advantage, but they also have injuries, including the broken hand that guard Andrus Peat is dealing with. New Orleans will also be without wide receiver Keith Kirkwood and tight end Ben Watson. If the Rams can run the ball like they did last week, you have to like their chances.