It's a playoff rematch from last season that many have had circled on the calendar when New Orleans makes the trek out west to face the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had to travel across the country to open their season at Carolina. They shook off their jet lag after a scoreless quarter to jump out to a lead of 13-0 late in the first half. Although the Panthers outscored the Rams 24-17 in the second half, Los Angeles held on for the victory.
The Saints enjoyed NFL Kickoff Weekend for the first time in several years. They escaped with a 30-28 victory over the Houston Texans on Monday night thanks to Wil Lutz's career-long, 58-yard field goal on the final play of the game. That gave the Saints their first win in a season opener since 2013.
Los Angeles leads the all-time series, 42-34. For games in Southern California, the Rams hold a 15-11 advantage. The Saints and Rams faced each other twice per season from 1970-2001 when both were members of the NFC West. These two also faced each other twice last season in New Orleans with Saints winning in the regular season and the Rams winning an unforgettable NFC Championship Game.
New Orleans at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 15 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Was Week 1 an anomaly for the Saints’ rushing defense?
Houston had to resort to recent additions at running back after losing projected starter Lamar Miller in a preseason game. The Saints allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game last season. Coming into the game, this portion of the matchup seemed to weigh heavily in favor of the Saints.
The results were awful for New Orleans. Carlos Hyde ran 10 times for 83 yards. Duke Johnson gained 57 yards on the ground on nine attempts. Even quarterback Deshaun Watson contributed 40 rushing yards and a touchdown on his four attempts. The Texans totaled 180 yards with an average of 7.8 per carry.
That defensive performance looked nothing like the 2018 Saints. Last season, New Orleans allowed an average of 80.2 yards per game. The Saints held the Rams to 92 yards and one touchdown on 19 rushing attempts in the 2018 regular-season matchup. In the NFC Championship Game, the Rams managed only 77 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. Can the Saints stop the Rams' ground attack again?
2. Is Cooper Kupp completely recovered and capable burning the Saints’ secondary?
Last week, Kupp appeared in his first regular-season game since sustaining a torn ACL on Nov. 11, 2018. Jared Goff targeted Kupp 10 times as the third-year wide receiver finished with seven catches for 46 yards.
Despite appearing in only eight games last year, Kupp served as a key component of the Rams offense, finishing fourth on the team in both (40) receptions and receiving yards (566). His six touchdown catches tied him for third with Brandin Cooks in terms of total TDs.
In Kupp's last full game before his season-ending injury, he was targeted six times against New Orleans in the teams' Week 9 meeting. He caught five passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. Kupp put up even better numbers in his first game against the Saints in 2017. As a rookie, the third-round pick out of Eastern Washington recorded eight catches for 116 yards. It was the most catches and second-most yards in a game in his rookie season.
New Orleans caught a break when Kupp was injured in last season's NFC Championship Game. Will he be a thorn in the Saints secondary side once again on Sunday?
3. Do the Saints have enough credible targets for Drew Brees?
Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were the first- and second-most productive receivers, respectively, for New Orleans last season. Thomas led the team with 147 targets, 125 receptions, 1,405 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. Kamara had 105 targets, 81 catches and 709 yards. His four receiving touchdowns placed him third on the team, just one behind wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith.
On Monday night against Houston, those two team leaders turned in typically healthy performances. However, Ted Ginn equaled Kamara's seven receptions and exceeded the running back's receiving yards, 101 to 72. Latavius Murray, Jared Cook and Smith each caught two passes. Smith also caught a touchdown, as did the Swiss Army Knife, Taysom Hill.
Ginn was not nearly as involved in the offense in 2018 as he was last week. Last season, he caught 17 of 30 passes thrown his direction for 209 yards and two touchdowns. He appeared in only five regular-season games and two playoff contests.
Smith showed some glimmers of promise but seemingly disappeared often in his first season. The third-round pick out of UCF had 28 catches (on 44 targets) for 427 yards and those five scores. More than half of Smith's production came in two games. He had no catches and fewer than 20 receiving yards in 12 games.
Will someone else step up to prevent the Rams from constantly double-teaming Thomas?
This game starts a two-week stay on the Left Coast for the Saints. After this game in Los Angeles, they will remain out west before heading to Seattle. The University of Washington will host them for the week leading up to next Sunday's game against the Seahawks.
It may seem hasty to label a contest in Week 2 as critical. However, the way that these two teams finished the previous two seasons, this outcome could once again have repercussions at the end of the season. Because these teams finished with the same regular-season records, the results of their head-to-head matchups determined their playoff seedings in 2017 and '18. The Rams had to travel to the Superdome for the conference title game last season since the Saints had defeated them in New Orleans.
The recent games between these two have been nail-bitingly close. The margin of victory has been by an average of 6.3 points. The last matchup went to overtime. This looks like yet another stomach-churning contest of wills. The desire to purge the bitterness of the NFC Championship Game will give the Saints the slimmest of edges.
Prediction: Saints 30, Rams 27
— 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