The 2017 playoffs ended in heartbreak for the New Orleans Saints. That could have been the case in the Divisional Round, but Marshon Lattimore’s interception off of Alshon Jeffery’s hands kept the Saints from potentially enduring more heartbreak in the second round. Now they are a home favorite to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009 when the Los Angeles Rams come to town.
The Rams cut down a playoff demon of their own following last year’s one-and-done showing against the Atlanta Falcons. They’ll make the long trek to the Big Easy, a place where they lost 45-35 earlier this season, for the first road playoff start of Jared Goff’s career.
We’ll look at some key matchups and angles for the NFC Championship Game and suggest some bets as we get ready for what should be a good one between the Rams and Saints.
The Saints are a 3.5-point favorite with a total of 57 for Sunday’s 3:05 p.m. ET start time.
Sean McVay has a big question mark going into Sunday afternoon’s game. Jared Goff was not good last season against the Falcons and was passable against the Cowboys last weekend. Goff was just 15-of-28 for 186 yards. The Rams were having a ton of success on the ground, so they didn’t need Goff, but they’re probably going to need him a lot more this weekend.
The Superdome was loud and raucous for last weekend’s Divisional Round game and it did seem to bother Nick Foles and the Eagles offense in the second half. After the Eagles were spotted to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, they didn’t score again. The Rams will rely heavily on the run again, but Goff will have to keep the defense honest.
Goff didn’t take any sacks and didn’t turn the football over against the Cowboys. Eleven of his 15 completions went for first downs, but there weren’t many chunk plays. This is going to be a much different environment.
On the Saints side of things, maybe Drew Brees was shaking off some early rust with the badly underthrown arm punt and another near pick on a sideline route in the first quarter, but the ball did hang a little bit. Brees eventually threw for 301 yards and only had the one pick, but the ball wasn’t coming in all that hot on a lot of throws.
Maybe the physical tools are declining a little bit for Brees, but the mental side of the game is still a separator. He buys himself a lot of time with his ability to look off defenders and almost always make the right reads. Goff doesn’t have those attributes yet. That means that it will be up to McVay to concoct the right game plan to beat the Saints ball-hawking, Buckeye-filled secondary.
The Saints are in this position because they made in-game adjustments against the Eagles. Philadelphia scored 14 points and had 169 of their 250 yards on three first quarter drives. The Saints ran 71 plays to Philadelphia’s 47 and held an enormous time of possession edge. It was a methodical 20-0 victory after the first quarter for the Saints.
Credit to defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who will have his hands very full this week.
An Encore Presentation
A similar game to what we saw back in Week 9 would be a lot of fun. The Saints won 45-35 over the Rams in the Superdome. It was a 35-14 Saints lead with 26 seconds left before halftime and the game was tied at 35 early in the fourth quarter. That game featured 970 yards of offense, 80 points, and all the fireworks that you would expect from these two offenses.
Interestingly enough, Todd Gurley only had 68 yards in that shootout. Granted, he did it on 13 carries, but Goff threw for 391 yards on just 28 completions. The Saints defense got a lot better as the season went along, but that was one of the best performances of Goff’s career.
Not to be outdone, Brees was 25-of-36 for 346 yards and four touchdown passes.
With the increased stakes, a complete lack of defense seems unlikely in this situation. That game was the first loss of the season for McVay’s bunch, who had started the year 8-0.
Literally Can’t Guard Mike
Michael Thomas had 12 receptions for 171 yards and a touchdown as the go-to guy for Brees in the win over the Eagles. In the first meeting against the Rams, Thomas had 12 catches for 211 yards and a 72-yard touchdown that sealed the game in the fourth quarter.
With Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram stretching the linebackers and safeties, Thomas is good against single coverage and also has an innate ability to find soft spots in zone coverage. What will Wade Phillips dial up to try and stop him?
If the Rams are successful, will Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael just go to the ground game? The Rams were 32nd in the NFL in yards per carry allowed during the regular season, but held Ezekiel Elliott to just 47 yards on 20 carries last weekend. They forced Dak Prescott to beat them and he could not. The Saints have a quarterback that can beat the Rams and have the running game to boot.
CJ Anderson is one of the NFL’s best stories. He was released by Carolina after Week 10 and was signed as an emergency player to replace the injured Todd Gurley and backup Malcolm Brown. Anderson ran 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns in last weekend’s win over the Cowboys. Filling in for Gurley late in the season, Anderson ran 43 times for 299 yards and a couple of scores in Weeks 16 and 17. This new dimension to the Rams offense is certainly a wrinkle that teams didn’t expect to see.
Gurley had 115 yards on his 16 carries against the Cowboys and looks as fresh as we’ve seen him all season long. The Saints defense wasn’t tested much by the Eagles and wasn’t tested at all by the Eagles running game. This is a unit that was second in yards per carry allowed in the regular season.
Continued success for the Anderson and Gurley combo would go a very, very long way in assisting Goff in this hostile environment. In Goff’s two playoff games, he hasn’t thrown a pick, but has only completed 53.4 percent of his passes.
The torn Achilles suffered by Sheldon Rankins could play a huge role in this game for the Saints against a refreshed Rams offensive line.
The Saints offensive line had some problems late in the season with injuries and then had problems with penalties against the Eagles. If the Eagles had been able to get off of the field on third-and-long, the Divisional Round game could have gone very different for Brees & Co. The Saints were whistled for four holding penalties on the offensive line. Andrus Peat had two of them. Ryan Ramczyk and Max Unger had the others.
Peat and Ramczyk were both dinged late in the year. Left tackle Terron Armstead was limited to 10 games because of a torn pectoral muscle. Larry Warford was banged up as well.
The Rams also had some late-season injuries on the OL. John Sullivan, Andrew Whitworth, and Rodger Saffold all missed time. Whichever team holds up better at the point of attack this week could have an easier time advancing to Super Bowl LIII. The Saints are sure to have their hands full with Aaron Donald.
Red Zone Report
As good as the Rams were in the regular season, they weren’t anything special in the red zone. Los Angeles was 18th in TD% on offense and 14th in TD% on defense. Getting threes instead of sevens in the Superdome would be problematic this week.
The Saints finished the regular season fourth in TD% on offense and 23rd in TD% on defense.
The Saints and Rams were both top 10 in third down conversion rate, so that could be the determining factor in this matchup.
The Saints have more weapons on offense. In a game projected to be a shootout, they should be able to prevail. The first playoff road start for Jared Goff is a big concern in this situation. The Rams do have the ability to run the football, but stopping the run is one thing that the Saints have done consistently well this season.
Look for this one to go under the total as well. The Wild West Shootout we saw the first time around is probably not how this game will go. The Saints really controlled the clock and sat on the football. The Rams won’t let Goff go crazy like he did in the first meeting. They’ll ground and pound. This game will likely get a lot of over money because of Brees at home and in the dome, but I’d expect a much tighter contest this weekend.