Clash of the Titans, Part II
Saints & Rams to battle for trip to Super Bowl LIII
Here we are at the NFL’s version of the final four – two conference championships with a trip to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on the line. On Sunday afternoon the Saints and the Rams will play for the NFC crown. That evening, New England and Kansas City will square off to see which team will represent the AFC. Since we cover the Saints, I’ll stay focused on the Saints, but I’m interested to see if the Patriot dynasty can continue and are the Chiefs bound to Chief and, again, get bounced out of the playoffs?
Coming into their Week 9 matchup, undefeated Los Angeles was the talk of the NFL. But New Orleans was close behind and making noise with a seven-game win streak. At the time, it was thought the winner of the game would host the NFC Championship. How right conventional wisdom was. The Saints beat the Rams 45-35 in a game that saw New Orleans dominate in the first half and allow the Rams to tie it up in the second before a 72-yard touchdown by Michael Thomas and a 54-yard Wil Lutz field goal sealed the game for the Black & Gold. Drew Brees completed 25 of his 36 passes for 346 yards, and four touchdowns. Thomas caught 12 of the 15 passes thrown to him for 211 yards and the TD. Alvin Kamara had 116 all-purpose yards, rushed for two touchdowns and caught another. While LA QB Jared Goff threw for 391 yards, a TD and an interception, New Orleans’ D held the Rams to just 92 yards rushing. It was a banner day for the Saints and because of its meaning then and now, truly, one of the greatest regular season games in franchise history.
That being said, I’m not sure if we’ll see the aerial, quick strike attack each team used earlier in the season. Vegas seems to agree. Where the teams combined for 80 points in their first meeting, the over-under for total points scored on this game is 56.5.
I think the Rams’ offense will look much like they did last week against Dallas. Goff has not been as sharp late in the season as he was at the start. Against the Cowboys, he was just 15 of 28 for 186 yards. LA rushed for 273 yards. C.J. Anderson bowled his way to 123 yards on 23 carries and two TDs, and Todd Gurley ran 16 times for 115 yards and a score. With Saints’ defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins out after tearing an Achilles tendon last week, look for the Rams to try to run on the Saints, as they attempt to control the clock and leave the Saints offense on the sideline.
I expect the Saints D to be up to the challenge. They have one of the best run defenses in the NFL and the secondary is consistently getting better. A monster performance by Cam Jordan would go a long way to letting the nation know what New Orleans already does: He’s one of the best and most underrated defensive ends in the NFL.
The Saints’ offense has been blessed that they can count on a solid performance week in and week out from Brees, Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Thomas, who is playing near-perfect football. These four will be the power nucleus of the offense and the center of most everything the Saints try to do. If the quick strike Saints are to return, they will need help from the wide outs. While he’s proven that opposing defensive backs can’t guard Mike, several of the Saints other receivers have been, seeming, missing in action at times. I hope Ted Ginn, Jr., and Tre'Quan Smith can stretch the field and create matchups that the Saints like… a lot. I expect the Rams defense to be aggressive, pressure Brees and try to make him uncomfortable. Look for Kamara and Ingram to line up in multiple locations and tight ends Ben Watson and Josh Hill to help in the intermediate passing game.
While Los Angeles is a highly-impressive and worthy adversary, I think the Saints are bound for Atlanta. Experience may be what carries them to the Super Bowl. This will be head coach Sean Payton’s third conference championship game with the Saints. He and his coaches know how to motivate his players and which buttons to push to get them at their peak performance. That was evident last week when New Orleans looked rusty after not playing in a meaningful game the prior two weeks. They got down 14 points in the first quarter, but adjustments were made and the Saints came alive. They scored 20 unanswered points as the D shut the Eagles offense for the final three quarters. Plus, in addition to having to take on the Saints on the field, the Rams will have to contend with a raucous, 70,000-plus person Superdome crowd that would love nothing more than to see their team get their dance card ready for their second Lombardi Party.
Sports books have New Orleans as a 3.5-point favorite. The homer in me says the line should be higher, but the realist knows anything can happen. Nine years ago, it took a game-winning field goal in overtime to go to Super Bowl XLIV. That won’t be the case this year. Vegas is right. The Saints should win, and they do – 35-24.