NFC teams that are somewhat surprisingly well out of the playoff conversation will meet on Sunday when the Los Angeles Rams take on the New Orleans Saints.
The Rams (3-6) appear to have not yet recovered from their post-Super Bowl hangover or, at least, from whatever they did during their bye week. They have lost three straight since having a break in Week 7. The fact that two of their defeats occurred against divisional opponents hurts even more.
The Saints (3-7) wasted an opportunity for a win last week on the road against Pittsburgh, losing 20-10. The offense floundered throughout the game, gaining only 186 yards from scrimmage. It's never a good sign when a team generates the same number of first downs as penalties committed (10 each). In fact, the penalty yardage assessed (74) almost tripled what New Orleans gained on the ground (29 rushing yards). As the flock of pigeons that congregated on the field at Acrisure Stadium during the game could attest, the Saints' overall performance was for the birds.
Los Angeles (3-6) at New Orleans (3-7)
Three Things to Watch
1. Will New Orleans' offensive line rebound from last week?
The Saints played last week's game in Pittsburgh without two starting offensive linemen. Josh Andrews substituted for Erik McCoy, who was recently put on injured reserve due to a calf injury, at center. Lewis Kidd, starting in his first NFL regular-season game, replaced Andrus Peat at left guard. Compounding the line's problems, James Hurst only appeared on 57 percent of the offensive snaps after leaving the game with a concussion.
The absence of starting linemen showed in the meager performance of New Orleans' offense. The Saints gained only 29 yards on the ground on 15 carries. That is the lowest output since rushing 14 times for 27 yards in a loss at Baltimore in Week 15 of the 2010 season. Alvin Kamara picked up only 26 yards on eight carries. That was just the 10th time in 88 career games that he had less than 30 yards on at least eight attempts. Taysom Hill rushed for one yard on three attempts.
As for Sunday, Hurst has already been ruled out and Peat is questionable with a triceps injury. Whoever makes up the offensive line for this game will have their work cut out for them, as Los Angeles is fourth in the league in rushing defense, giving up 96.1 yards per game and only four yards per carry.
2. How will the Rams cope with the absence of Cooper Kupp?
Kupp, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year who also claimed the receiving triple crown, is on injured reserve after undergoing surgery for an ankle injury suffered late last week. Kupp's absence cannot be overstated since he has been far and away their most productive player on offense. His 75 catches are second only to Tyreek Hill in the entire league, and his 812 yards are fifth. On his own team, he has nearly three times as many receptions as any other wide receiver (tight end Tyler Higbee is second overall with 44), and his yardage represents 38 percent of the Rams' entire production (2,149 receiving yards). He's also responsible for two-thirds of the touchdown catches (six of the nine).
With Kupp sidelined, someone else will have to step up — and that's before digging too deep into the offense's issues running the ball and protecting the quarterback. Allen Robinson II (29 rec., 292 yds., 2 TDs) and Ben Skowronek (26, 245) have been the most productive wideouts after Kupp, but the hope is that Van Jefferson can finally make an impact after missing most of this season due to a knee injury. Jefferson only has eight catches for 27 yards in three games thus far, but he does have a touchdown and this is a guy who played a big part in the Rams' Super Bowl run last season with 89 catches for 802 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season alone.
Unless Los Angeles figures out a way to get much more out of a running game that's last in the league with just 68.1 yards per game, other pass catchers are going to have to increase their production. On the other side, though, New Orleans' job is much easier knowing it won't have to worry about Kupp dissecting their coverage and gobbling up yards after the catch. The Saints also enter this game sixth in the league in passing defense (195.9 ypg), although they have surrendered 11 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.
The Rams also will be catching a break because New Orleans will be down four defensive starters on Sunday. Defensive ends Cameron Jordan (eye) and Marcus Davenport (calf), linebacker Pete Werner (ankle), and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (abdomen) have all been ruled out.
3. Can either team protect the ball while forcing any turnovers?
The Rams have struggled to hold on to the ball, committing 15 turnovers in nine games. Matthew Stafford is responsible for 11 of those (eight INTs, three fumbles) in the eight games he played. He didn't suit up against Arizona last week since he was still dealing with the effects of a concussion suffered in the previous game. John Wolford got the start in his place and turned it over twice (INT, fumble) in the 27-17 loss to the Cardinals. Pass protection also has been an issue, as Stafford has been sacked 28 times (tied for fourth in the league) and Wolford went down three times vs. Arizona.
But turnovers have been an even bigger problem for the Saints. They have 19 giveaways, the most in the league, with the biggest culprit being a league-high 12 interceptions. While Jameis Winston gets a lot of the blame and his turnovers (5 INTs in three games) were one of the reasons why he lost the starting job, Andy Dalton has seven picks in as many games, with all but one of those coming in his last four outings.
The good news for these offenses is that both defenses haven't excelled in creating turnovers. New Orleans has just seven takeaways this season, including two interceptions (tied for fewest in the league), while Los Angeles isn't much better with eight turnovers forced (5 INTs).
Both teams' hopes for the playoffs are fading fast. The Super Bowl hangover has been fierce for the Rams, who trail NFC West leader Seattle by 3.5 games with eight left to play. At this point, even getting a wild-card berth seems highly unlikely. The Saints are one game worse in the loss column but have the benefit of residing in a watered-down NFC South that's currently led by 5-5 Tampa Bay.
The Rams and Saints have faced four opponents in common so far: the Buccaneers, Cardinals, Falcons, and Panthers. The Rams are 3-2 versus those teams. In contrast, the Saints are only 1-3. Look for the defending champs to finally get off of the mat, at least for one week.
Prediction: Rams 20, Saints 17
— 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 gridiron-connoisseur.com and on YouTube.
*Price as of publication.