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Who Dat got the inside track to NFC home-field advantage?

The Saints continue their run by dispatching another top NFC East contender

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about last Sunday’s game. The Saints, with one of the strongest home-field advantages in the NFL, were 1.5-point underdogs to the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL’s last undefeated team. The Rams have one of the most explosive offenses in the league and a defense stocked with high-end talent, led by Aaron Donald, the league’s most destructive interior pass rusher. The Saints would have their hands full; they would have to keep their offense functioning at a high level while getting enough stops on defense to prevail. And a nearly-perfect first half gave them a big enough lead to survive a furious Rams rally and put it away for good with a late score, 45-35.

The Rams still technically have the lead in the NFC conference, but that’s because they’ve played one more game and have one more win than the Saints. Each team has one loss, and if they finish with the same number of losses, the Saints will get the higher seed– and right now, that competition is for the first overall seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

New Orleans’ nearly perfect half included five touchdowns on offense and a couple of major plays to stop the Rams’ offense. The teams traded two touchdowns apiece on their opening drives. With the score knotted at 14-14, a Mark Ingram fumble gave the Rams the ball at the Saints 22. For the first time on the day, the defense held and successfully forced a three-and-out. On the ensuing field goal attempt, Rams holder Johnny Hekker ran a fake that the defensive unit just barely stopped him from converting– so close that a lot of people thought it would be overturned on review. The huge stop seemed to energize the Saints, who capitalized by scoring touchdowns on their next three drives. The Rams responded by missing a field goal and throwing an interception, made possible by a brilliant individual play by Alex Anzalone:

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Unfortunately, the Saints’ ugly two-minute defense reared its head again. After a penalty pushed the Rams back to their own 42 with nine seconds left in the half, the Saints allowed a 20-yard completion that put the Rams back into range for Greg Zeuerlein to boot a 56-yard field goal to close the half. The Saints’ two-minute defense has been a consistent problem this year, giving up big plays and long drives in situations where they need to be locking down the other team.

The Saints then allowed the Rams to dominate the third quarter, tying the game with 9:48 left in the fourth. It’s not the sort of thing that happens often to New Orleans, but against a team as explosive and relentless as the Rams, you can’t coast on a lead; you gotta keep driving and scoring points. (In that sense, Sean Payton’s call of a punt on 4th-and-4 from the Rams 44 was totally unacceptable.)

Of course, even if the Saints had two drives stall out, there was no way they were going to fail to score again. After retaking the lead with a field goal, the defense successfully forced a Rams punt, and Michael Thomas had the backbreaking catch I’m sure you’ve seen by now:

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Close it out with two clutch third- and fourth-down pass breakups by P.J. Williams (on ex-Saint Brandin Cooks, no less), and the Saints secured a true statement win and the inside track to home field advantage in the NFC.

Some takeaways from this game, mostly involving the defense:

The pass coverage’s holes haven’t quite been fixed yet. In fairness, a team like the Rams is a difficult measuring stick, since they’re such a potent offense, having scored between 29 and 39 points this year in all but one of their games. Sean McVay’s schemes always seemed to find a receiver open when the team needed it, and Jared Goff threw for 391 yards. That said, we didn’t see any scenes like we did in the first three weeks of the season, of Ken Crawley and/or P.J. Williams futilely chasing after a receiver who had burned them for a long touchdown. The secondary had a few penalties in addition to the passing yards given up, but given the level of competition, it wasn’t a bad performance– and the big plays the defense came up with may have saved the season. (Interesting wrinkle: The Saints spent essentially the entire game in a nickel defense, with Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, and P.J. Williams playing every single snap, and no other cornerback getting playing time.)

The run defense is legit. This game was arguably going to be the Saints’ biggest test of the run defense yet, with the Rams’ strong offensive line and the preposterously productive, all-everything running back Todd Gurley. Holding Gurley to a mere 79 yards from scrimmage, his lowest total of the season, was outstanding work. The Saints did give up carries of 14 and 24 yards to Gurley, but his other 11 carries went for just 30 yards, he was stuffed five times, and his six receptions totaled a mere 11 yards. (For a great example of what free-agent linebacker Demario Davis brings to the table, check out his diagnosis of and closing speed on a Gurley catch in the flat here:)

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The pass rush needs Marcus Davenport back. Davenport is out with a toe injury, and the Saints didn’t sack Jared Goff once. I still believe in Trey Hendrickson, and I see no indicators he was a liability on the line, but Davenport is a rare physical talent who had been coming on strong lately, and the Saints just couldn’t get there without him around. I’m sure the team will find ways to pressure the passer until Davenport returns, but it is concerning to see. If Hendrickson can play to the level I believe he’s capable of, or if Davenport returns and his development hasn’t stalled out, I do believe that, in conjunction with the performance of Sheldon Rankins this year and the play of All-Pro Cameron Jordan, the pass rush will be strong enough to be a legitimate force come playoff time. And a strong pass rush helps the back end of the pass defense, and if those two units can hold up, then the sky is the limit for the Saints.

One thing the Saints can’t do is have a letdown against the Bengals after such a high-strung, hard-fought game. I’ll be doing a bonus column this week where I’ll touch on how they can avoid that– but mostly to discuss a certain free-agent signing the team made that I’m sure you’ve heard about by now.

Oh, and before I go: You didn’t think I was going to leave the recreation of the most famous TD celebration in Saints history go unmentioned, did you?

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