The cream has risen to the top of the NFC, as expected, as the top-seeded New Orleans Saints will host the No. 2-seeded Los Angeles Rams in the conference title game Sunday for the right to play in Super Bowl LIII.
The game is a rematch of a Week 9 showdown in New Orleans, won 45-35 by the Saints as they dealt Los Angeles its first loss of the season after an 8-0 start. The teams finished 13-3, but that victory gave Sean Payton’s team home-field advantage for this contest.
This is just the third time in Saints franchise history they have been in the NFC title game, all with quarterback Drew Brees. They lost at Chicago in the 2007 postseason and beat Minnesota at home in overtime in 2010 before upsetting Indianapolis to win Super Bowl XLIV.
The Rams are making their first conference championship game appearance since “The Greatest Show on Turf” led by Kurt Warner defeated Philadelphia at home in St. Louis in 2002 before losing Super Bowl XXXVI to New England.
That upset kick-started the rise of the Patriots — a potential opponent in Atlanta on Feb. 3 — as the greatest NFL team of this generation.
The last time the Rams were in a NFC title game when the franchise was situated in Los Angeles, they were bludgeoned 30-3 at San Francisco in the 1990 postseason. The Rams have lost their last two conference championship games on the road since beating Tampa Bay 9-0 in 1980 before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.
The line opened with the Saints as three-point favorites, but early action saw the home team get the hook added to 3.5. The over/under opened at 57 points and has held steady early.
(Bookmark this page because there will be updates with breakdowns, videos and quotes from both teams on Friday!!)
A Quick Review of the Season to Date
Los Angeles Rams Review
The Rams (14-3) were sluggish early before getting their running game going and grinding down Dallas in a 30-22 victory Saturday night.
Todd Gurley rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown but was overshadowed by the surprising contributions of late-season signing C.J. Anderson, who bulled his way to 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 23 carries.
Anderson, who was signed as an insurance policy when Gurley was dealing with an inflamed knee that sidelined him the final two weeks of the season, has rushed for 422 yards and four touchdowns in three games with Los Angeles. The Rams set a postseason-franchise record with 273 rushing yards, an effort all the more impressive considering the Cowboys finished fifth in the regular season against the run after yielding 94.6 per game and held Seattle — the No. 1 rushing team — to 73 in the wild-card round.
“Having both of them is special,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff told the New York Times
, “because it gives you a real dual threat of backs.”
“It’s scary,” Anderson told The Associated Press
after teaming with Gurley to become the fourth pair of running backs to rush for over 100 yards in a playoff game. “We’ve got two different styles, and we can keep teams off balance.”
Goff played more of a caretaker role in this game given the proficiency of the ground game, completing 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards. He also contributed with his legs, delivering a game-sealing 11-yard run for a first down with 1:51 to play.
Los Angeles’ ball control on offense allowed the defense to stay fresh as the Rams had possession for over 36 minutes. As a note of comparison, the Rams held the ball only for 26-plus minutes in their first meeting against the Saints and it was also their second-lowest mark of the season.
The other came in a loss at Chicago in which Los Angeles had the ball for barely more than 23 minutes. All three defeats have come when the Rams have had possession for less than 28:30.
“We feel like we can, and we’re going to beat either team we have to play,” center John Sullivan told the Los Angeles Times
after the win and before Sunday’s divisional round game was played. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in New Orleans. It doesn’t matter if it’s home against the Eagles.
“We’re confident we’re going to win that game.”
New Orleans Saints Review
The Saints (14-3) overcame a 14-point first-quarter deficit to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14, the biggest postseason comeback in franchise history. It also marked the first time the Saints won a home game scoring 20 or fewer points since a 16-14 victory over Carolina in Week 4 of the 2010 season.
Drew Brees threw for 301 yards and two touchowns, including a go-ahead 2-yard strike to Michael Thomas in the third quarter to cap a game-altering 18-play, 92-yard drive that consumed 11:29 off the clock. New Orleans had to overcome Philadelphia’s defense as much as its own mistakes on that drive, which included three penalties and a key 3rd-and-16 conversion.
The other key play was a risky decision by coach Sean Payton to call for a fake punt on 4th-and-1 from the New Orleans 30 in the second quarter. Utility back Taysom Hill gained four yards to move the chains an extend a drive that concluded with the Saints’ first touchdown on another fourth down conversion.
“It was a calculated risk,” Brees told the Washington Post
about the fake punt. “It’s not like we’re just flying by the seat of our pants out there. These are things we’ve talked about. These are conversations we’ve had for critical situations. . . . If you don’t have a play you like, you don’t go for it.”
Thomas, who was double-covered in the first meeting against Philadelphia and had only four receptions on four passes thrown his way, delivered a huge performance with 12 receptions for a playoff club-record 171 yards. In three career postseason games, Thomas has already racked up 27 receptions for 387 yards and three TDs.
“It’s win or go home. I do whatever it takes. If you are double or tripled team, it doesn’t matter,” he told NOLA.com
. “You just have to do your job. You just need to concentrate on what you are doing and things will open up. We have a lot of preparation during the week. We responded. I don’t know if it was a breakout game, but you just go out and make plays when your number is called.”
The defense also did its job by coming up with two turnovers, both interceptions by Marshon Lattimore. His second one on a pass off the hands of Alshon Jeffery at the New Orleans’ 19-yard line ended Philadelphia’s final drive.
The Saints defense limited the Eagles to 250 total yards, aided by the Saints’ ball-control offense. New Orleans held possession for nearly 38 minutes, which contributed to Philadelphia running only 47 plays.
“It took us a minute to settle in and just play, execute everything that we were doing,” Lattimore said. “But once that second half came I think they only had 50 passing yards in the second half. We really locked in and turned up. We played with some swag in the second half. And I love when we be like that. Our defense is better when we play like that.”
The Saints have won seven straight playoff home games since a 36-20 loss to Philadelphia in the 1993 wild-card round, and Brees is 6-0 at home in the postseason with New Orleans. He has thrown for 1,830 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions in those victories while compiling a 114.3 passer rating.
(stay tuned for a full write-up on Friday).