Admittedly, I was very worried at the end of the first quarter– as I’m sure we all were– as the Saints showed up looking like a team that had actually taken the last three weeks off from football, including the lead-up to this game. (Combined with the team’s consistent letdowns in week 1, it makes me wonder if they get too complacent with time off.)
But with the team down 14-0, I started to see the team I expected to see in the second quarter. It started with the Eagles’ third drive, after two touchdowns, being broken up by a Marshon Lattimore interception, as perfect a coverage play as you’ll ever see:
And on the Saints’ ensuing possession, what looked like a three-and-out turned into something else altogether. Sean Payton called for a fake punt on fourth-and-2, with Taysom Hill taking the snap directly and running up the middle for the first down. The very next play, Drew Brees hit Michael Thomas downfield for 42 yards, more yardage than the Saints offense had gained in the entire game to that point.
From that point on, the Saints rolled for most of the game, taking control on both sides of the ball. They didn’t put up a juggernaut scoring run, but a series of steady drives– including a mammoth 18-play touchdown drive that took up nearly the entire third quarter– gave them the lead and control of the game.
Just as importantly, the Saints defense went on lockdown. The Lattimore interception was the catalyst, but for the rest of the game the Saints shut out the Eagles. The disparity was stark:
The Saints did have some struggles finishing out, though. Having gotten to the Philadelphia 31 and facing 3rd-and-8 with 3:08 left and a 20-14 lead, Sean Payton called a running play, hoping to gain enough yards to allow Wil Lutz to kick an easier field goal and give the Saints an insurmountable two-score lead.
Instead, Michael Bennett blew up the middle of the line and dropped Alvin Kamara for a three-yard loss. The field goal was now 52 yards, and Lutz missed for only the third time all season, giving the Eagles the ball with enough time left to win the game.
The defense even gave up two first downs on the next drive; the Eagles hadn’t had more than one first down on a drive since the first quarter. (The second first down was a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty on Marcus Davenport.) But then, with the Eagles down to the Saints’ 27, luck became where preparation (and talent) met opportunity, as a ball that bounced off the usually sure-handed Alshon Jeffery was plucked out of the air by Lattimore, allowing the Saints to seal the game.
After that terrible first quarter, the Saints mostly played like the team that had been so dominant most of the season, although the offense still has not gotten back up to its highest peaks. Having all the offensive starters back seems to have helped a bit. Ted Ginn back seems to have given life back to the passing offense; besides catching 3 passes of his own for 44 yards, he seems to have spread out the offense again and kept teams from focusing on Michael Thomas, both with his speed drawing coverage and with his quickness in route-running giving Drew Brees a legitimate second option downfield. (He was the target of a deep ball on the very first play– perhaps Sean Payton reads our column here— although Brees underthrew it and it was intercepted.) Thomas made the most of Ginn’s return by having another monster game, to the tune of 12 catches for 171 yards and a score. The league leader in receptions has made a habit of having these monster games this season; this was his seventh such game with 10 or more catches.
The offensive line had all five members back in the lineup– and playing for the entire game– for the first time in a while, although the unit is playing through a lot of injuries right now. Left guard Andrus Peat’s is the worst, as he’s playing through a broken hand. It showed on Sunday, as he had one of his worst games of the season, with multiple penalties called on him, including a couple of holding calls (though one of those was specious at best). Hopefully with another week to heal he’ll be better off against the Rams, because with Aaron Donald on the opposing defensive line, the Saints can’t afford to have any interior weaknesses.
And with that, let’s take a look at Sunday’s NFC Championship.
NFC Championship Game
2:05 PM CST
Line: New Orleans -3.5
When the Saints have the ball
The Rams’ defense hasn’t played at the same level it did last season, in part because defensive success is tougher to sustain than offensive success, but also because of some personnel changes. Marcus Peters plays a different style of cornerback than Trumaine Johnson; he’s more of a gambler, which also means he’s easier to beat on a big play. Michael Thomas did just that last time, to the tune of 12 catches for 211 yards, including the game-sealing 72-yard TD. However, the Rams will also have Aqib Talib back after he missed the first match, giving the Rams some more strength in the secondary. By the same token, the Saints have Ted Ginn back– it’s hard to say that will “open up” an offense that scored 45 points in the last meeting, but Ginn does provide a secondary option downfield and a counterattack if the Rams focus too heavily on Thomas.
The Rams’ run defense was its weak spot this season, but don’t tell that to Cowboys fans, who saw them bottle up Ezekiel Elliott last week for only 47 yards on 20 carries. That was in significant part due to Jason Garrett’s deficiencies as an offensive schemer and play-caller, though: Garrett frequently runs the ball in obvious and predictable situations, from obvious and predictable formations, and just too damn often when the team needs more yards than a running play will provide. Sean Payton does not make the same mistakes.
My worries with the offense are not with the playcalling so much as the health of the offensive line. Aaron Donald is almost certainly going to be your Defensive Player of the Year, and with Ndamukong Suh combines to form one of the most dangerous interior linemen combinations in the NFL. I worry that if the Saints’ line is banged up, they’re going to have a tough time winning that battle, and Andrus Peat’s struggles last week (see above) give me reason to worry. The line is strong, of course, but playing hurt can really take a lot out of a player’s effectiveness. Some good news is that Peat, Max Unger, and Ryan Ramczyk were all full participants in Thursday’s practice after being limited earlier in the week. That bodes well for their health and effectiveness.
More good news is that left tackle Terron Armstead has been a full participant in practice all week; with his athleticism and the Rams’ linebackers being a relatively weak spot on the team, don’t be surprised to see a substantial amount of screen passes fired Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara’s way.
The Saints have the horses to win a shootout with the Rams. They may have to.
When the Rams have the ball
The Saints’ defense has been vastly improved over the back half of the season, following up the last Rams game with an impressive six-week run of not allowing more than 17 points in a game, then returning to form by completely shutting down the Eagles after their first two drives. They’ll need to play up to that level, because the Rams offense has been one of the most potent forces in the league in both phases of the game.
The most favorable matchup for the Saints will be if the Rams try to lean on the run. Though the Rams were the team’s strongest rushing offense this season– which they demonstrated again last week, with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson each rushing for over 100 yards– New Orleans was one of the league’s strongest run defenses all season long. Of course, missing Sheldon Rankins will hurt here (as it will everywhere), but the Saints still have enough talent in their front seven, and are avoiding the missed-tackles issues of years past, that they should at least be able to slow down the Rams ground game enough for them not to lean on it to advance the ball and chew clock. Last time around, Gurley carried the ball 13 times for 68 yards and a touchdown as the sole featured back; those numbers would be a welcome limitation of the running game in a rematch. Outside of a couple of nice plays, the Saints were actually mostly effective at bottling up Gurley.
The pass game is another matter. New Orleans still struggles against deep passes, although not as much as early in the season. Brandin Cooks’ deep speed will have to be accounted for, likely by Marshon Lattimore or over-the-top help from Marcus Williams. Robert Woods has become a steadier target down the stretch run, he’s a capable if not amazing receiver, but he reliably gets open in the Rams offense. Cooper Kupp was Jared Goff’s go-to guy for a long time the last two seasons, and his ACL injury has coincided with a downturn in the Rams passing offense.
The Saints’ best chance of stopping the passing attack is by rattling Goff with the pass rush. Losing Rankins hurts on that front, but the Saints still have a strong collection of defensive linemen and packages that can get pressure. The team also signed defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, a former undrafted player who spent three years in New Orleans. He played four games for the Rams last year, so perhaps some familiarity there will help his performance Sunday, or provide some insight for the Saints. Walker and David Onyemata will be leaned on more and more to provide the pass rush Rankins did. For that matter, Cameron Jordan has enough size and strength to conceivably kick inside on passing downs, with, most likely, Marcus Davenport and Alex Okafor manning the edges.
The Rams offense is a marvelous design, running passing concepts that almost always free up a receiver and make Jared Goff’s reads easy. He doesn’t handle pressure well, though, and forcing him out of the play’s structure can often lead to sacks and bad, inaccurate throws. Goff can deliver on the money when he has time, but he’s not a playmaker per se. The Rams have a strong offensive line, so it could be tough, but I think that’s what the game comes down to for the Saints defense. Can they pressure Jared Goff while the coverage holds up long enough to get to him, whether that’s by rushing four and dropping seven, or by sending a blitz?
I’m not making a prediction this time around. As an eight-point favorite, I felt pretty comfortable calling a Saints win, and even with an abysmal start, they proved to be the better team. The Saints beat the Rams last time in part because they were on fire in the first half and roared out to a 35-14 lead. That’s much less likely to happen this time around, and the Saints will be in real trouble if they get off to the kind of start they did against the Eagles. The Saints are 3.5-favorites: They can win, and I believe they will win, but the Rams earned their spot in the NFL’s final four on merit, and the Saints will have to bring their A-game to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.