The Saints are competitive in a close loss, but they’ll need more than that to reach their aspirations

I started worrying about this game early last week, when I heard Marshon Lattimore was in a walking boot (a pretty good sign he wouldn’t play). And then on Saturday I heard Ken Crawley had an abdominal injury and would miss the game. Being down two starting cornerbacks (really three, but I’ve pretty much written off Delvin Breaux for the season) was a tough place to be, on the road against a Rams offense that had gone from incompetent and unwatchable to one of the most explosive in the league with a few offseason player additions and the replacement of Jeff Fisher (the avatar of NFL mediocrity) with Sean McVay (another example of NFL nepotism, but also a pretty damn brilliant coach). And while the Rams didn’t score as much as I thought they might have, my fears were well-founded. Even with leading receiver Robert Woods out, the Rams targeted the Saints’ cornerbacks early and often, with P.J. Williams and De’Vante Harris starting in place of Lattimore and Crawley. (Harris, who began the year playing ahead of Crawley, has been the most-frequently burned member of the Saints’ secondary; he was eventually benched for Sterling Moore, who was cut earlier in the year and brought back last week.) Cooper Kupp was the biggest beneficiary, with 8 catches for 116 yards on 11 targets. Sammy Watkins only caught 4 of his 9 targets (82 yards and a touchdown) but also drew two pass interference penalties for 63 more yards. Even seldom-used rookie Josh Reynolds got in on the action, with four catches on six targets for 37 yards and a score, and a defensive holding penalty drawn. (He had one career catch before the game.) Even though the Saints periodically stopped the Rams, aided in part by Jared Goff’s continuing scattershot accuracy, it wasn’t enough; the Rams had a touchdown lead they extended to 13 in the fourth quarter before hanging on to win 26-20, running up 415 yards of total offense en route to the win that snapped the Saints’ eight-game winning streak. The Saints may have struggled even more on offense on Sunday. Wade Phillips has coached tremendous defenses wherever he’s gone, and Los Angeles is certainly no exception. Trumaine Johnson was effective in covering Michael Thomas. Drew Brees was sacked three times; Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn would be difficult for any line to block, but when the Saints were without Terron Armstead for a period of time, that only made it more so. Brees had some uncharacteristic struggles (well, uncharacteristic depending on how much you buy the rumors that he’s slipping– I don’t, yet), as he missed an open Ted Ginn on a deep ball he almost certainly would have taken in for a touchdown, a play that could’ve changed the course of the game. The only really successful player on offense was Alvin Kamara, who continues to make his case for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Kamara continued to display the same outstanding receiving ability and explosiveness that led the Saints to target him in the draft. In particular, his elite body control and integration of quickness and balance were on display, as he repeatedly made Rams defenders miss tackles and made something out of nothing over and over. (And that means, once again, Kamara will be the focus of our highlights.) (We didn’t even include Kamara’s 71-yard touchdown run, another sensational feat worth watching. If anything, the biggest criticism from this game is that Kamara wasn’t used enough; he had 188 yards on only 11 touches. By comparison, Mark Ingram had 36 yards on 13 touches.) Unfortunately, it’s hard to say we learned much from this game. We learned the Saints struggle at cornerback without Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, but we already knew that. (In the last two weeks, where Lattimore was almost entirely absent, the Saints pass defense ranked 31st according to ESPN Stats and Info. From weeks 4 to 10, it ranked 4th.) We learned the pass rush and run defense are a little weaker without Alex Okafor; we learned Kamara is really good; we learned the Rams’ defense is really good. All things we knew already. It’s an unfortunate loss for the Saints, because the NFC is particularly top-heavy this year, and the races for home-field advantage and playoff byes will be tight. By losing to Los Angeles, the Saints are still 8-3, a terrific record, but only in line for the fourth seed in the playoffs, behind 10-1 Philadelphia, 9-2 Minnesota, and the 8-3 Rams– and they have lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Vikings and Rams. On top of that, they’re still in a tight race for the division, as they host Carolina, also 8-3, this Sunday, and Atlanta is just one game behind at 7-4. This team, at full strength, might actually be better than the 2009 Super Bowl team, but the conference is much stronger this year, and the path to the Super Bowl may be even tougher. As long as they stay in reasonable health, New Orleans will likely only be an underdog in one more game this year, their week 14 Thursday night match at Atlanta. Unfortunately, the Saints finishing 12-4 isn’t likely to get them a first-round bye, and may just set them up to host round three with either Carolina or Atlanta on Wild Card Weekend. That may be a big hurdle for them to clear, but if anyone can do it, it’s this team: All they can do from here is try to keep winning. The good news is, Lattimore and Crawley returned to practice on Wednesday, so the defense should be much more stout for Sunday’s matchup. (Crawley seems on track to go; Lattimore missed Thursday’s practice, so his status remains in doubt, but the Saints beat the Panthers handily without him in week 3.) I still believe this team is capable of 12 or 13 wins; I just hope that’s enough for them to get Wild Card Weekend off before hosting a Divisional Round playoff game. The chase begins anew Sunday in the Superdome against Carolina, where once again the Saints have been chosen for the 3:25 national game. Trivial statistic of the week: New Orleans is 8-0 this season when Ken Crawley is active on game day. The Bayou Brief is a non-profit news publication that relies 100% on donations from our readers. 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