In one of the most highly anticipated games of the entire 2018 NFL season, this Sunday evening the (6-1) New Orleans Saints will host their long-time NFC rivals, the undefeated (8-0) Los Angeles Rams in a game that will major implications for the NFL Playoffs at the end of the year.Kickoff is set for 3:25 p.m. Central Time and will be broadcast nationally by FOX Sports.
This game will be critical to both teams’ positioning within the NFC Playoff race, as the two respective leaders of their divisions square off in a head-to-head battle between current #2 seed New Orleans and #1 seed L.A. that will give the winner a tie-breaker advantage at the end of the season in 9 more weeks. Additionally, the Saints will be seeking to win their 7th straight game in a row.
It’s with all of that in mind this morning, that Big Easy Magazine presents 5 bold predictions for this Sunday afternoon’s contest as New Orleans attempts to hand the extremely dangerous and NFC West Division-leading Rams their very first loss of the 2018 Regular Season.
We’ll start first at #5, and work our way down to #1…
#5. Facing the NFL’s 11th Ranked Run Defense, The Saints Have A Tough Day Running The Football Against the Rams Defensive Front Seven for a 2nd Straight Year
The Rams run defense is as good as it has been under long-time and legendary NFL defensive coordinator Wade Phillips; yielding 100.9 yards per game, which currently ranks 11th among the NFL’s 32 teams. But in the game last year out in Los Angeles, you may recall the big day enjoyed by then-Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara, who made one of the biggest highlight plays of the entire season last year on a spectacular 74-yard TD run down the right sideline.
And yet in spite of Kamara’s effort, the Rams still managed to essentially shut down the Saints rushing attack, as New Orleans only managed 49 additional more rushing yards outside of Kamara’s one long TD run.
In this Sunday’s contest, the Saints running game will experience some tough-sledding once again, as the Rams defensive front Seven led by All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald and nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, stuff New Orleans in an attempt to make the Saints offense one-dimensional. But whether or not it will end up having the desired effect for Los Angeles, is an entirely different question.
#4. The Saints #1 Ranked Run Defense Contains Superstar RB Todd Gurley, But Doesn’t Completely Stop Him Either
The Saints actually have the #1 ranked run defense in the NFL at the moment. That has come as a bit of a surprise, given their very notable struggles at times last year at stopping the opposition’s #1 running back in several contests last season. The Saints are only yielding 74.1 yards per contest up to this point.
The Saints in this contest will be facing starting #1 Rams All-Pro running back Todd Gurley, who is by far and away the very best running back in the entire NFL right now. Gurley leads the League in rushing, with 169 carries for 800 yards (an even 100 yards per game average) and a League-leading 11 rushing touchdowns, along with 351 receiving yards, and another four receiving touchdowns; which also makes Gurley the NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage and scoring (15 total TD’s and another three 2-point conversions for a grand total of 96 points scored).
Last season when these two teams played in Los Angeles, Gurley was limited by the Saints run defense to only 74 rushing yards on 17 carries, In this Sunday’s contest at the Superdome, the Saints limit Gurley once again (86 yards on 18 carries) — but not before he scores twice to help the Rams keep the game close heading into the final period.
#3. Drew Brees Has a Solid Day Guiding the Saints Offense — But Gives Up a Critical Fumble on a “Sack and Strip” That the Rams Return for a Defensive Touchdown
L.A. defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had a brilliant game-plan last season when these two teams met out in California in the Rams’ 26-20 win, as Los Angeles held Saints quarterback and League MVP candidate Drew Brees to 246 yards passing; and only a meager 96 yards of it came in the first three quarters alone.
So it goes without saying that Phillips will likely bring the blitz early and often this Sunday against the Saints, in spite of the fact that Brees can make teams pay dearly for blitzing him one too many times.
Nevertheless, what that doesn’t mean is that the Rams won’t blitz Brees at all; and although Brees will have a solid day guiding the Saints offense and throwing the football (327 passing yards, three touchdowns), he will also get sacked three times, two of them by Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald — who leads the entire NFL with 10 sacks this season.
It’s the second one of Donald’s two sacks against Brees that will prove costly for New Orleans; as he sacks and strips Brees from behind, and the ball is then scooped up by Rams safety/inside linebacker Mark Barron, who returns it 56 yards for a momentum-changing score for Los Angeles early in the 1st half.
#2. Rams 3rd-Year QB Jared Goff Has a Big Day Passing-Wise Against the Saints Secondary, Despite Being Sacked 3 Times
The Rams’ red-hot start has undoubtedly been led mostly by their dangerous wide receiver corps (Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, former Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks; and #4 wideout Josh Reynolds). But, much of the credit also goes to 3rd-year quarterback Jared Goff, who after struggling mightily as a rookie back in 2016 when these two teams last played in NOLA, has thrown for 2,425 yards, 17 touchdowns, and five interceptions while directing L.A.’s high-powered, big-play passing attack.
It’s a far cry from the same player that the Saints saw at the Superdome two years ago. In that contest, the game was close at halftime; but the Saints applied plenty of heat in the second half, when Goff completed 8 of 12 passes for just 47 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception, and he was sacked twice in the 49-21 blow-out victory for New Orleans.
New Orleans finished with three sacks in that contest, and it goes without saying that a key to a Saints victory this Sunday will be getting adequate pressure on Goff, despite the toe injury to rookie Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport that’s expected to keep him out of action for at least a month.
However, with 6th-year veteran defensive end Alex Okafor along with 2nd year defensive end Trey Hendrickson (who could possibly see a significant increase in snaps and playing time in Davenport’s absence) stepping up to help out All-Pro Cam Jordan, the Saints pass rush still manages to sack Goff three different times — despite giving up over 350 yards passing and two touchdowns to him via scoring passes each to both Woods and Cooks.
#1. In the Meeting of Brilliant Minds Between Two Offensive Gurus, Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and Rams Head Coach Sean McVay Engage in a Back-and-Forth Battle of Wits — That Results in This Dramatic Last-Minute 4th Quarter Finish
The Saints rank 8th overall in the NFL in total offense (389.9 yards per game) and 2nd in points (33.4); while Los Angeles ranks 2nd overall in the NFL in total offense (442.6 yards per game) and 3rd in points (33.0).
Which makes this Sunday’s game a potentially high-scoring affair, with two of the League’s very best offensive attacks “duking it out” in front of a nationally-televised audience in what might just be one of the League’s marquee match-ups in recent memory (or at least until the Rams play the (7-1) Kansas City Chiefs in two weeks from now, in Mexico City on ESPN Monday Night Football).
Like Saints head coach Sean Payton, Rams head coach Sean McVay is considered League-wide to be an offensive “guru” — despite the fact that the 32-year-old McVay is also the youngest head coach in the NFL, and barely older than most of his own players.
McVay was formerly the offensive coordinator in Washington under their head coach Jay Gruden, and he is considered the man responsible for the development of former Redskins (and now Vikings) quarterback Kirk Cousins. He was hired by the Rams after the team fired former head coach Jeff Fisher at the end of 2016, and unquestionably is the mastermind behind the Rams’ rapid rise from obscurity just 2 short years ago.
That remarkable success will continue in this game, although the Saints are able to somehow weather the storm defensively and hang around throughout the contest; with the sack and strip touchdown return of Brees’ earlier fumble by Barron the difference in the game as the Rams lead by six points (30-24) with under five minutes left to play.
Following a Rams punt on a crucial run-stop of Gurley on a 3rd-down-and-2 play by Saints linebacker Demario Davis, the Saints get the ball back at their own 22-yard line with 4:13 remaining on the game clock and go to work. Brees leads the Saints on a methodical and time-consuming 78-yard TD drive featuring a brilliant mixture of the pass and run, and it’s capped off by a 2-yard Ingram run with 1:05 remaining to give the Saints a single point lead (31-30).
Unfortunately, the Saints have left the Rams (who are out of timeouts) with too much time on the clock; and after getting the ball back at the 32-yard line, the Rams get across mid-field quickly on a 23-yard reception by Woods, who beats newly-acquired Saints cornerback Eli Apple in pass coverage.
But two more plays — a 2-yard run by Gurley and an incomplete pass intended for wide reciever Josh Reynolds — leaves L.A. facing a 3rd-down-and-8 at the Saints 45-yard line with 32 seconds showing on the clock.
The Rams are already thinking about a field-goal attempt no matter what because kicker Greg Zuerlien (nicknamed “Legatron”) has one of the most powerful kicking legs in the NFL. A 62-yard attempt is easily within his distance, despite some recent injury issues (a severe groin pull) that he’s had this season.
But McVay is thinking 1st down in this situation, and he’s Hell-bent on getting the successful conversion to get Zuerlien a much higher-percentage kick.
As the ball is snapped to Goff, he looks over the middle for former Saint Brandin Cooks who has run a curl route; but it’s PICKED OFF (thanks to some clamp-down bracket coverage) by Saints safety Von Bell — who simply falls to the ground with the ball secured in his arms as the Saints have gotten possession of the ball with 25 seconds remaining.
A Brees kneel-down gives New Orleans another HEART-STOPPING victory, as the Saints win their 7th game in a row — while handing the Rams their very first loss of the 2018 campaign…