NFC Championship Los Angeles Rams vs New Orleans Saints Preview

Photo: Todd Gurley
Source: Harry How / Getty Image North America

A rematch of heavyweights set to brawl in the Big Easy for a ticket to Super Bowl LIII

The Los Angeles Rams make their second trip to the Crescent City to battle the New Orleans Saints this season as the top two seeds meet in the NFC Championship game on Sunday. The Rams (14-3) and Saints (14-3) find themselves one victory away from a spot in Super Bowl LIII after taking care of business at home last week in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

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Los Angeles trampled Dallas 30-22 out on the West Coast last Saturday. The Rams’ tandem of C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley piled up 238 rushing yards and three touchdowns while averaging more than six yards per carry (on 39 total attempts). Los Angeles controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage, limiting Dallas to just 50 rushing yards, and dominated time of possession (36:13 to 23:47).

New Orleans stumbled through the first quarter of its game this past Sunday against Philadelphia. Drew Brees threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage and the Eagles jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. But a Marshon Lattimore pick of Nick Foles started to turn the tide, as the Saints’ offense found its footing and the defense shut Philadelphia out the rest of the way. After a shaky start, the Brees-to-Michael Thomas connection got going as New Orleans went on to score the final 20 points of the game.

These two teams met in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome back in Week 9 as the Saints won a high-scoring affair 45-35. The offenses combined for 970 yards with Brees (346 yards, 4 TDs) and Jared Goff (391, 3) both filling up the stat sheet. Thomas (211 yards) also made his presence felt as New Orleans handed the Rams their first loss of the season. That game ended up being the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

NFC Championship: Los Angeles at New Orleans

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3:05 p.m. ET

TV: FOX

Spread: Saints -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Michael Thomas vs. Rams’ secondary

Last week against Philadelphia, Thomas hauled in 12 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown. The receptions were his highest since Week 9 when he went for 211 and a score on 12 grabs against the Rams. Will the All-Pro continue to have success against Los Angeles’ defense?

The Rams’ secondary will include a key component who was missing from the teams’ previous matchup. Starting cornerback Aqib Talib will start this Sunday after missing half of the regular season (Weeks 4-12) because of an ankle injury.

How much of a difference will Talib make? In the nine games (including last week’s playoff win) Talib has played this season, Los Angeles is giving up 206.3 passing yards and 17.7 points per game. Without him, those numbers jump to 272.6 and 30.8.

Additionally, no one should forget about the on-going squabble between Rams’ cornerback Marcus Peters and Saints’ head coach Sean Payton. Those two bantered during the first meeting in November. The feisty rhetoric continued this week. Despite what Peters mentioned, it seems unlikely that these two will sit down together to enjoy some gumbo. Will the Saints’ receivers go out and back up their coach’s trash talk?

2. Todd Gurley/C.J. Anderson vs. Saints’ front seven

Gurley’s production dipped toward the end of the regular season as he dealt with a knee injury that caused him to miss the last two games. Before that he failed to gain 50 rushing yards in Weeks 14 or 15, but he did remain a factor in the passing game (combined 13 catches for 106 yards).

But the positive for the Rams was that Gurley’s absence opened up an opportunity for C.J. Anderson, who the team signed following his release by Carolina. The former 1,000-yard rusher showed he was still capable of carrying the load, as he went for nearly 300 yards in the final two games of the regular season and then led the team with 123 in the Divisional Round win over Dallas. Not to be outdone, Gurley showed he was plenty healthy by going for 115 and averaging a robust 7.2 yards per carry against the Cowboys.

The duo will look to keep things going against a New Orleans defense that finished second in the regular season vs. the run (80.2 ypg). In the first meeting, the Rams managed 92 rushing yards and a touchdown on 19 carries with Gurley responsible for most of the damage (68 yards, TD, 5.2 ypc). Anderson wasn’t with Los Angeles then but you can pretty much expect head coach Sean McVay will call on both of his backs on Sunday.

3. Saints’ offensive line vs. Rams’ defensive line

New Orleans has done a superb job of keeping Drew Brees upright. He took all but a small percentage of the snaps from center in 15 games during the regular season with opponents registering a total of 17 sacks. No other quarterback started as many games yet was sacked so few times this season. To put it another way, he was sacked during just 3.4 percent of his pass attempts. That’s the second-lowest rate in the NFL even though Brees attempted nearly 500 passes (489, 16th).

Los Angeles has a formidable trio that anchors its defensive line. It starts with Aaron Donald, the All-Pro who is the front-runner to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight year after racking up 20.5 sacks, 25 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in the regular season. Ndamukong Suh has done his part clogging things in the middle while Michael Brockers chips in as the other starting defensive end. These three have started all 17 games together and are tasked with making plays behind the line of scrimmage and getting pressure on Brees, even if it doesn’t result in a sack. Their effectiveness will dictate how the linebackers are used by veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Can the Saints’ offensive line hold up against the Rams’ fearsome threesome? Three Saints’ linemen were flagged for holding versus the Eagles. Andrus Peat struggled in particular, with two holding calls against him. He is expected to play Sunday in spite of his broken hand, which clearly hampered him last week. Considering that Donald leads the NFL in sacks and tackles for a loss, New Orleans cannot let him dominate a the point of attack and take over the game, even if that means double-teaming him.

Final Analysis

The NFC bracket held to form to give us a No. 1 vs. No. 2 championship game. As a result, fans will witness two evenly matched teams that are tied for the best records in the NFL. If the regular-season matchup foreshadows what will happen in this one, another high-scoring contest awaits.

But this game appears headed for a closer finish than what transpired back in November. The Saints had a 21-point lead late in the first half before a field goal made it 35-17. The Rams battled all the way back to tie the game with less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter only to watch New Orleans score the next 10 points over a three-minute span. Sunday’s matchup figures to stay tight for the duration and may even need overtime to decide the winner.

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