Surprising divisional leaders collide in the Los Angeles Coliseum
Week 12 of the NFL season features an unexpected matchup of division leaders when the New Orleans Saints come west to take on the Los Angeles Rams. The Saints (8-2) have won eight games in a row after coming from 15 points down in the fourth quarter against the Redskins to win 34-31 in overtime. It was the largest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history.
Down 31-16 with 5:58 remaining, New Orleans scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes and added a two-point conversion after the second one to tie the game. After being bullied for most of the game, the Saints’ defense came up with two key three-and-outs late in the fourth quarter and then on the opening possession of overtime to help make the comeback and eventual game-winning field goal possible. The win allowed New Orleans to maintain its one game lead over Carolina for first in the NFC South.
The Rams (7-3) weren’t as fortunate last week, as Los Angeles fell 24-7 at Minnesota. The offense struck first, scoring on the opening possession to take a 7-0 lead but it was all Vikings the rest of the way. Minnesota outgained Los Angeles by nearly 200 yards (451-254) and also had nearly twice as many first downs (27-15). The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for the Rams, who remain a game ahead of Seattle for first place in the NFC West.
These two teams have plenty of history between them with the Rams holding a 40-33 edge. The Saints have won three of the past five meetings, including last season’s 49-21 victory in New Orleans. In that game, Drew Brees (above, right) threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns while Mark Ingram ran for 146 and scored twice (one rushing, one receiving). Jared Goff threw for 214 yards and three scores (and an interception) in a losing effort.
New Orleans at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 26 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Los Angeles -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Rams’ defense slow down the Saints’ rushing attack?
A key for Los Angeles’ chances to win will be slowing down New Orleans’ running game. The Saints have posted 100 rushing yards in seven of their eight wins. They have exceeded 150 yards on the ground on five different occasions, all victories.
A stark difference between New Orleans this season compared to the three previous is the offense is not reliant on Drew Brees to throw for 300-plus yards every game in order to win. The success of the running game has taken some of the burden off of Brees, as the Saints are just 2-2 in the games with his four highest passing yardage totals on the season.
As successful as the Rams have been this season, the defense has had issues stopping the run. They are near the bottom of the NFL in rushing defense, giving up 123.3 yards per game. They also have surrendered 10 rushing touchdowns, which is tied for the third most in the league. Los Angeles is 3-1 when holding teams under 100 rushing yards and just 2-2 when the opponents run for more than 150.
2. Saints’ replacing starters on defense
First-round pick Marshon Lattimore has put together a solid rookie season, but the cornerback is now dealing with an ankle injury. He has started nine of the team’s 10 games and has two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He’s second on the team in tackles, leads the way with nine passes defended, has forced a fumble and also recovered one. Lattimore did not practice on either Wednesday or Thursday and his status for Sunday has to be considered questionable at best. That’s why Sterling Moore (12 starts in 2016) was re-signed on Wednesday. New Orleans is hoping he step in immediately and help resolve the glaring mishaps in coverage against Washington that were apparent following Lattimore’s exit.
One key defender who will not be returning this season is defensive end Alex Okafor, who tore his Achilles tendon against the Redskins. A starter every game, Okfafor was second on the team in both sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (two). The Saints will try and replace Okafor with one of three guys currently on the roster. Hau’oli Kikaha has the most experience, having appeared in 15 games in 2015 and seven this year. However, he has recorded only four tackles and three sacks so far. Rookie Trey Hendrickson has rotated into nine games but started none. He has contributed six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Fellow first-year player, Al-Quadin Muhammad, has appeared on the active roster only twice and has not shown up on the stat sheet. Can these linemen, either alone or by rotating with each other, fill the void left by Okafor’s absence?
3. Will the Rams being able to score enough to keep pace with the Saints?
The Saints have averaged 30.2 points per game this season. That is the third-highest average in the NFL entering Week 12. New Orleans has scored 20 or more points in every game but one. The Saints are 6-0 when they score more than 20 points, 2-2 when they don’t.
Los Angeles is ahead of New Orleans in scoring by a hair (0.1), but that average is bolstered by several offensive outbursts, including three games with 41 or more points. The Rams are 0-3 when they score 20 points or fewer.
Jared Goff and company will need to score to keep up with the Saints, unless Los Angeles’ defense really shows up. Special teams may need to chip in with a big return or key play, like the blocked punt the Rams had against Jacksonville. The defense does have a shutout (Week 7 vs. Arizona) and also has done some scoring of its own, such as the two interceptions returned for touchdowns and safety against Indianapolis in Week 1.
This contest matters more than just keeping the winners in first place in their division. It will factor in determining the playoff seeding should both teams maintain those leads. Home-field advantage and/or a first round bye could be at stake on Sunday, we just won’t know for sure until the rest of the regular season plays out.
So with that in mind, this is a game that could come down to the wire, especially based on the point spread. New Orleans has been tempting fate the past five weeks by not winning the turnover battle yet still finding a way to come out victorious. Could this be the week when that trend costs the Saints a victory?
Prediction: Rams 30, Saints 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.