The NFC Championship tale of the tape

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The first time around, the Saints slowed Todd Gurley a lot better than the Rams slowed Michael Thomas — but a lot has changed since early-November.

The Los Angeles Rams were the story of the 2018 offseason.

Led by a second-year quarterback (Jared Goff), a third-year running back (Todd Gurley), and a head coach younger than some of his players (Sean McVay), this re-re-located franchise rode an offensive surge from 4-12 to 11-5 last season, and they spent most of this offseason acquiring every big defensive name they could to complement best-in-the-league tackle Aaron Donald while somehow skirting the salary cap. Ndamukong Suh came from Miami. Marcus Peters came from Kansas City. Aqib Talib came from Denver. Dante Fowler Jr. came from Jacksonville midseason.

This was as much of an all-in strategy as we’ve seen in the cap era. Knowing they had only a small window to take advantage of Goff’s rookie contract and surround him with a flood of talent before contracts had to start getting offloaded — they had two years at most, really — they went for it.

The gambit more or less paid off in 2018. Even though the defense never completely came together, slowed down by injuries and big-play issues in the secondary, Los Angeles finished 13-3, tied for the best record in the league. They are one win from the Super Bowl.

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Aaron Donald (99), Michael Brockers (90), and Ndamukong Suh (93)

Their main problem: the Saints also went 13-3. And because of a 45-35 win over Los Angeles on November 4, they’re hosting the NFC Championship. They are a half-touchdown favorite over the Rams — nearly the margin of the home-field advantage they earned two and a half months ago — and they are one of only a couple of teams that are arguably better than McVay’s team at the moment. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Rams have the lowest odds among the four remaining teams of winning the Super Bowl.

Going all-in and giving yourself a fixed window of time to win a title is both exciting and terrifying; even if everything works out as you want it to, you still have to win a single-elimination tournament at the end of the year. You’re still a flip of the coin from watching your plans fail.

Eighty-five percent. That would be a pretty good catch rate for a running back who catches a lot of checkdowns and flare passes. It would be unheard of for a wide receiver.

The 28 NFL wideouts targeted at least 100 times combined for a more-than-respectable 66 percent catch rate, and only seven topped 70 percent. But there’s Michael Thomas, catching 125 of 147 passes, eight-five percent of them, for the season.

Thomas is emblematic of New Orleans’ offense: absurdly efficient, if slightly less explosive than some of its peers. Of those 100-target wideouts, only six averaged fewer yards per catch than Thomas’ 11.2, and of the most efficient passing attacks in the league, only Atlanta was less explosive. But if you can’t figure out how to rush quarterback Drew Brees, you’ll die via 1,000 paper cuts.

The Rams know this as well as anyone. In New Orleans’ November win over Los Angeles, Thomas was officially targeted 15 times; of the first 13 targets, only one was thrown further than 12 yards from the line of scrimmage. He caught 10 short passes for 121 yards over the first three and a half quarters, and then, with the game tied at 35-35, he went deep over the middle to set up a field goal, then caught a bomb (well, the Saints’ version of a bomb) down the left sideline for the game-clinching touchdown.

New Orleans’ output against the Rams was the perfect combination of the Saints’ efficiency (first in passing marginal efficiency) and the Rams’ big-play leakiness (third-worst in passing marginal explosiveness). Nick them until they get desperate, then gash them.

If you’re Los Angeles, you have to feel good about the fact that, with Talib on the sideline and Thomas playing incredibly well, you were still tied midway through the fourth quarter. That you hurried Brees only four times in 36 passes and never sacked him, however, has to make you feel ... less good.

In the New Orleans offense, basically three guys touch the ball: Thomas and running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Of the Saints’ 982 combined regular-season carries and targets, this trio had 611 of them. The Rams contained Kamara and Ingram (combined: 35 intended touches for 152 yards, only 4.3 per IT) and could do so again on Sunday afternoon. But they had no idea how to stop Brees-to-Thomas. Now they get another chance.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Thomas

The Rams were indeed without Talib against the Saints, but they were also with receiver Cooper Kupp, who would tear his ACL a week later. New Orleans did a phenomenal job of limiting Gurley’s output (20 intended touches, 79 yards) that the Rams needed Thomasian combined production from Kupp and Brandin Cooks (14 targets, 11 catches, 203 yards) to catch up after falling behind early.

The Rams scored 51 points on the Chiefs the week after Kupp’s injury, but their production slowed briefly from there. After averaging 35 points and 449 yards per game through 11 contests, they averaged 20 and 322, respectively, while losing two of their next three games. So with the passing game slightly hamstrung, they redoubled their rushing efforts.

Through 14 games, the Rams had rushed for more than 150 yards three times; they’ve now done so in each of their last three games. They straight-up mauled a good Cowboys defense a week ago, with Gurley and bowling ball/journeyman C.J. Anderson combining for 238 yards on 39 carries.

Not only did Los Angeles sign Anderson in mid-December, after he had been cut by Carolina and Oakland, but they’ve put him to work: he’s carried 66 times for 422 yards in his three games in a Rams uniform. While stopping Gurley has been an obvious key for beating Los Angeles — he averaged 6 yards per intended touch in wins and only 4.7 in losses this season — Anderson’s emergence has potentially changed the equation a bit, especially combined with some dominance up front.

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C.J. Anderson

We’ll see what that means against the Saints. Per DVOA, New Orleans was one of the only defenses in the league that defended the run better than Dallas. The Saints ranked sixth in rushing efficiency and first in rushing explosiveness — they aren’t the most disruptive defense in the league, but linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein and safety Vonn Bell don’t miss tackles.

Without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles early in last week’s win over Philadelphia, the Saints could be a bit more vulnerable up front. They weren’t against the Eagles, mind you — Philly’s Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles gained just 18 yards in nine carries after Rankins’ injury —but with Gurley refreshed and Anderson doing a great Short Jerome Bettis impersonation, the Rams will test New Orleans’ front significantly.

Special teams didn’t play a huge role in this year’s first Saints-Rams game — there were only three punts, after all. But Greg Zuerlein did miss a long second-quarter field goal that could have come in handy later on, and immortal New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead did down the Rams inside their 20 twice. (It didn’t matter, as Los Angeles turned those two points into 10 points, but still.)

New Orleans has easily had the better special teams unit here, especially in the two ways that matter most: punting and place-kicking. If special teams actually do play more of a role this time around, that probably favors the home team.

Not including their Brees-less, meaningless Week 17 loss to Carolina, New Orleans has scored at least 20 points in every home game this year and has scored at least 31 points six of eight times.

The Saints’ defense, however, has been quite a bit more volatile, which has made them one of the more unpredictable teams in the league against the spread. They gave up a combined 21 points in two home wins over Philadelphia, and they held an efficient Atlanta offense to 17 points on Thanksgiving. But they also gave up 48 points to Tampa Bay in Week 1, plus 35 to the Rams and 28 to the Steelers.

Granted, that Tampa game was a long time ago, but from the perspective of spread performance, New Orleans has been far more up-and-down. Despite the reasonably tight Vegas line, both a 20-point Saints win and a 14-point Saints loss are on the table.

Brees just turned 40 years old and is two wins from his second Super Bowl ring, which would be as many as Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, more than Aaron Rodgers, etc. His 74 percent completion rate in 2018 was the highest of his career, and this probably isn’t his last shot at said second ring, but it might be his best shot.

Meanwhile, though other franchises usually wait until you actually win the Super Bowl to begin imitating you like crazy, we’re already seeing the McVay Effect emanating throughout the league; just imagine how other teams might attempt to copycat McVay’s offensive leanings, especially after he engineered a late-season shift in those leanings.

Imagine, too, what might happen around the league if the Rams’ all-in-for-a-ring maneuvering actually produces a ring. We talked all offseason about their bold moves; now we find out if they pay off.

My prediction: Saints 31, Rams 28

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Drew Brees

If Rankins’ injury turns out costly, and if the Rams are no more capable of slowing Thomas with Talib than they were without him, then this game could cross the same 80-point threshold that the first battle did. But we’ll say both teams are a little more cautious, and both defenses slow the run game enough to force enough third-and-longs to keep the point total tamped down this time.

New Orleans’ volatility opens up the possibility of a double-digit win for either team, but it’s hard to envision anything other than a super-tight, fun-as-hell contest. The first one certainly was, even if the Saints scored a late-round knockout.

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