The New Orleans Saints and 3rd-year wide receiver Michael Thomas had a message to give to the Los Angeles Rams and the rest of the NFL in front of a sold-out Superdome crowd yesterday, although the method in which it was delivered certainly didn’t lack for entertainment value.
The talented 23-year-old and former Ohio State University star was on the receiving end of a 72-yard strike from quarterback Drew Brees with just slightly less than four minutes remaining. A strike that not only helped (7-1) New Orleans earn their 7th consecutive victory and knock off previously unbeaten Los Angeles (now 8-1 overall) by a score of 45-35, but provided Saints fans with a “flashback” to an iconic moment in team history from 15 years ago. Thomas caught the pass from Brees in perfect stride over elite Rams cornerback Marcus Peters and then celebrated by pulling out an old-fashioned “flip phone” from underneath the padding of the goal post in the end zone. It was a tribute to another famous play in Saints team history from the 2003 season when the former wide receiver and team living legend Joe Horn did a similarly famous celebration in a Sunday night win over the New York Giants.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 5, 2018
Joe Horn in 2003 vs. Michael Thomas in 2018 pic.twitter.com/bGwsogn0Fq
— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) November 5, 2018
Thomas finished with 12 receptions for a club-record 211 yards receiving, breaking the team record of 205 yards set by former wide receiver Wes Chandler back during the 1979 season.
Thomas’ long touchdown came during a critical third-down situation in which it appeared that the Rams were expecting the Saints offense to run a short-yardage play. The Saints caught the Rams’ secondary “napping,” and clearly out of position to make the play.
After his tribute to Horn, Thomas was was penalized for excessive celebration, but Los Angeles was unable to mount any sort of a comeback after that.
On the Rams’ next possession, it was Saints 4th year cornerback P.J. Williams — chosen as the NFC Defensive Player of the Week just a few days ago after he helped New Orleans win its previous contest last week at Minnesota — who then broke up a 4th-down pass intended for Rams and former Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks, giving the Black and Gold the victory and the likely #1 overall ranking in the entire NFL when the various League “Power Rankings” are released later today.
Although the Rams remain the #1 overall playoff seed over the Saints by virtue of their half-game lead in the win column, the Saints now own the tiebreaker over Los Angeles for home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Presumably, the Saints will be ranked in the Power Rankings ahead of the (8-1) Kansas City Chiefs; who most likely are expected to hold down the #2 overall spot behind New Orleans while still remaining ahead of the Rams and the (6-2) New England Patriots.
This regular season is setting up a potentially epic postseason with all sorts of revenge/rematch possibilities — with Rams and Chiefs both losing their first games of the season to major contenders.
Chiefs vs. Patriots? Rams vs. Saints? In the playoffs? Yes, please.
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) November 5, 2018
As it is, the Saints nearly blew their chance to reach the top thanks to a remarkable comeback by Los Angeles in the 2nd half.
New Orleans had raced out to an early lead after 2nd-year superstar running back Alvin Kamara scored three different times; twice on runs near the goal line, and then another score on a 16-yard catch-and-run — all of them coming in the first half alone.
The Rams all-star studded defense failed miserably to live up to its stellar reputation. They yielded a whopping 313 yards and 24 first downs just in the first half. And yet, Los Angeles managed to erase a 35-17 halftime deficit by scoring 21 unanswered points, and the score was actually tied entering the 4th quarter. But L.A. simply couldn’t get enough pressure on Brees when it absolutely mattered, and the NFL’s recently-crowned all-time passing leader managed to complete a very efficient 25 of 36 passes, including touchdowns to four different receivers. Brees finished the day with 346 passing yards and zero interceptions.
However, there were other factors that contributed to yesterday’s gratifying win that shouldn’t be overlooked.
While it’s true that the Saints pass defense gave up 391 yards and three touchdowns to Rams quarterback Jared Goff and his talented trio of wide receivers (Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp), the Saints run defense was nothing short of magnificent as they limited Rams All-Pro running back Todd Gurley (who went into the game averaging 100 yards rushing per game) to just 68 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries.
And while Los Angeles made things interesting in the 2nd half, it was clear the momentum swing that occurred when Rams’ holder/punter Johnny Hekker’s fake field goal running attempt for a first down in the 2nd quarter failed and gave the ball back to New Orleans, after they had given the ball away previously on a Mark Ingram fumble.
Johnny Hekker with the FAKE field goal
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) November 4, 2018
The replay seemed to show that Hekker had reached his arm fully out and extended the ball beyond the first-down marker before his knee hit out of bounds. That was a three-point and potentially a seven-point swing in favor of New Orleans. It was made even worse when Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein missed a 51-yard field goal on the subsequent possession. But perhaps the most impressive factor was the outstanding performance of the Saints offensive line. They didn’t give up a single sack and paved the way for a strong running game that allowed Brees to effectively guide the offense and manage the game for most of the contest.
And certainly while the Saints defense has had more than its fair share of “shaky” moments, they continue to step up in the most crucial of moments, particularly within these past three weeks; all of them victories for New Orleans.
Up next for the Saints: a road trip to Cincinnati, Ohio to face the (5-3) Bengals. New Orleans will be seeking an 8th straight win and will possibly look to strengthen its hold on the NFL’s #1 spot. But for now, the Saints will simply relish in the fact that it has done what no other team had been able to do: knock off the red-hot Rams and take over the so-called bragging rights to which team in the League is considered to be the very best at the moment.
Yesterday in front of a sold-out Superdome, Michael Thomas and the Saints had a message to give the entire NFL. And it’s safe to say that when it was all said and done, that message was definitely received — loud and clear.
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist who has worked as a sports editor and columnist and has been featured on ESPN New Orleans’ The Sports Hangover. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.