Many people think this game will be a preview of the NFC title game, and they may be right. The Rams, of course, are the league's last unbeaten team, and a road win against the mighty Saints would silence the credibility of those who say the Rams are ''lucky" or ''haven't beaten anyone" (which is lame regardless of how this one turns out). It also has implications for home-field advantage during the playoffs, as whoever wins this game will hold the tiebreaker for that advantage. A Ram win could be especially decisive in that regard, as it would leave them essentially three games in front of the Saints for the first seed in the playoffs. The oddsmakers don't seem to be able to get a handle on this game either, with some favoring the Saints by about 1.5 points, others picking the Rams by a narrow margin. Most of the so-called ''experts" on the NFL network and ESPN seem to lean towards New Orleans. If you are a Rams fan that's not all bad. Being "disrespected" is an old and useful motivational tool for NFL teams that dates at least back to Vince Lombardi.
Rams Defense vs. Saints Offense:
The Rams faced Aaron Rodgers last week, and squared off against another future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees on Sunday. While Brees may lack Rodgers' athletic play-making ability, he is the ultimate pocket passer who seldom makes a mistake. He also benefits from a far-superior supporting cast. The one-two punch of running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara is as good as any running back tandem in the NFL, and those guys present a major challenge to the Rams defense. The Saints also boast one of the league's truly elite receivers in Mike Thomas, a solid offensive line and an overall offense that ranks fourth in scoring and averages 342 yards per game. The Rams linebacking corps HAS to step up its game this week, both to shut down the Saints running game and the equally dangerous threat posed by Kamara in particular in the short passing game. The other unit of the Rams defense that needs to play better is the secondary, and cornerback Marcus Peters in particular. If Peters and fellow corner Troy Hill can't play better than they have in recent weeks, Mike Thomas could have a monster day. While Brees threw for only 120 yards in a win last week against the Vikings, Thomas could top that all by himself this week against the Rams if our corners don't play up their game. The other key for the Rams, of course, is generating pressure on Brees up front. Aaron Donald is the NFL sack leader with 10, Ndamukong Suh is a quarterback's nightmare, and Micheal Brockers is no slouch either. Newly acquired edge-rusher Dante Fowler could be a factor as well, although it's not clear how many snaps he will take. All things considered though, I have to give the Saints offense the edge here. I don't think the Rams can entirely shut down this offense, and holding them under 30 points is probably the best we can expect.
Rams Offense vs. Saints Defense:
There is real potential for the Rams to light up the Saints secondary, which has not been very good. New Orleans is first in the league in rushing defense, but 22nd in pass defense. They recently traded for former Giants corner Eli Apple to try to fix that. Apple was rated the 55th best corner in the league by Pro Football Focus at the time of the trade. We aren't talking about Patrick Peterson here. Making things worse for New Orleans is the fact that defensive end Marcus Davenport, who had two sacks against the Vikings last week is expected to miss Sunday's game with a significant toe injury. That's worse then it sounds since that is the toe linemen use to push up-field when rushing the passer. The Rams, meanwhile, are expected to have slot receiver Cooper Kupp back. Reuniting Kupp with fellow wideouts Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks gives the Rams probably the best trio of wide receivers in the league.
On top of that, Josh Reynolds had a good game against Green Bay last week, and Todd Gurley is probably the best pass-catching running back in the league. Of course, just because the Saints excel at stopping the run doesn't mean the Rams won't try to run it with Gurley as well, especially since the Rams have the number one ranked rushing offense. The Rams use a lot of play action in their passing game, and even if the running game is only semi-effective, the Saints can't just forget about Gurley running the ball. I think the Rams can score on these guys. What they can't afford is another slow start like we saw last week against Green Bay.
If you think special teams don't matter, look at the Green Bay game. Without the Hekker punt that was downed at the one-yard line, setting up a safety, and the Ramik Wilson hit on Ty Montgomery that caused a fumble, Green Bay probably wins that game. While the Saints special teams are not bad, I think the Rams have the best in the league, especially with almost everybody (minus Pharoh Cooper) healthy.
On top of everything else, Corey Littleton has two blocked punts and the season is only half-over. Penalties on punt returns, especially of the ''Illegal block in the back" variety are a concern, but I still give the Rams a big edge here.
I honestly think this game is a toss-up. The Saints are 11-1 at home over the past 12 games, and the Rams offense better be ready to deal with some deafening crowd noise on offense. However, I'm a Rams fan, and this has the potential to be a shoot-out.
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