In what could be a potential NFC Championship Game preview, the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints will face off in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday afternoon. The Rams (8-0) are the only undefeated team remaining and they needed a little bit of help last Sunday against Green Bay to keep their record unblemished. The Saints ran their win streak to six in a row with an impressive victory in Minnesota last Sunday night.
Los Angeles defeated Green Bay 29-27 at home last week, but it wasn't easy. Greg Zuerlein's 34-yard field goal with 2:05 remaining gave the Rams a 29-27 lead. Ty Montgomery then fumbled the ensuing kickoff instead of taking a knee in the end zone, which Los Angeles recovered and then ran out the clock to win their third game this season by three or fewer points.
New Orleans didn't have to sweat nearly as much in beating Minnesota 30-20 to exact some payback for last season's NFC Divisional Playoff loss courtesy of the "Minneapolis Miracle." The Saints didn't need much help from Drew Brees to defeat the Vikings, as he threw for a season-low 120 yards with one touchdown and his first interception of the season. Instead, it was the running game and two critical turnovers (including a pick-six) forced by the defense that fueled the victory.
The Rams lead the all-time series, 41-33, beginning with the Saints’ first regular season game in franchise history. For games in New Orleans, the Rams lead 19-17. These teams have split their six most recent meetings dating back to 2009.
Los Angeles at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 4, 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Todd Gurley vs. the Saints’ run defense
In practical terms, Gurley is the Rams’ rushing attack. He has averaged exactly 100 yards per game on the ground. No one else on the Rams’ roster has compiled more than 200 rushing yards over the course of the season. He has rushed for 11 touchdowns while the rest of the team has none.
The Saints’ rushing defense is the stingiest in the NFL. They have permitted the fewest yards on the ground per game (74.1) and per rushing attempt (3.2). They have allowed opponents only 29 first downs by rushing, second fewest in the NFL. New Orleans has allowed more than 100 yards on the ground just once — to Tampa Bay in the season opener — and that game remains their only loss.
2. Drew Brees vs. the Rams’ pass defense
Drew Brees threw for less than 200 yards for only the 17th time in a game in which he played beyond the first quarter with the Saints. As the result on Sunday showed, such a low total does not necessary spell doom for New Orleans. Actually, the Saints have a record of 10-7 in those cases.
The Rams have invested in building their defensive line into the foundation of its solid defense. In April, they signed high-profile free agent Ndamukong Suh who has defensed two passes, recovered two fumbles and recorded 22 tackles, including three sacks, this season. Aaron Donald, selected in the first round of the 2014 draft by the Rams, leads the team with 10 sacks. In 2012, they used a first-round draft pick for Michael Brockers, who has 17 solo tackles and a sack this season.
Los Angeles has kept opposing passing offenses under control, more or less. They rank 10th in terms of fewest passing yards allowed per game (230.5) with two opponents being held below 150 yards. They are tied for 11th for fewest passing touchdowns surrendered (12). They are tied for 14th for interceptions with seven.
3. Jared Goff vs. the Saints’ pass defense
Opponents have pressured Goff enough to reduce his passing productivity. He has thrown for less than 300 yards in four games this season. In half of those he was sacked five times. He has been sacked 2.1 times per game on average and at least once in all eight games so far. Both the Broncos and the Packers dropped him for losses on five plays. In those two games, he threw for fewer than 300 yards and under 55 percent completion rate. Only one other opponent (Oakland in the season opener) has held him under both thresholds this year.
The Saints’ pass defense has some reasons to suspect its effectiveness. They have sacked opponents’ quarterbacks 17 times, tied for 23rd in the NFL. Their five interceptions rank as fifth lowest. How much will Marcus Davenport’s absence due to an injured toe diminish the Saints' defensive line?
The result of this game will likely affect playoff seeding in the NFC. The Saints already hold the head-to-head tiebreakers against the current leaders of the NFC East (Redskins) and the second-place team in the NFC North (Vikings). The winner of this game appears to be on track to secure the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Both teams have played outstandingly though not perfectly so far. Their defenses rank high in multiple categories but still have some exploitable weaknesses. Their offenses have balanced attacks. This match-up has the look of an epic battle that deserved a primetime audience.
Prediction: Saints 27, Rams 24
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.