Why not the Saints?

The 6-1 New Orleans Saints returned to the Superdome to take on the 8-0 Los Angeles Rams in what could be a future NFC Conference Championship matchup. Following a bye week and two road wins against the Baltimore Ravens and the Minnesota Vikings, the Saints looked to extend their winning streak to seven. When these two teams met last year, the Saints were listed as slight underdogs for the first time since Week 3 of the season, coming off an eight game win streak. The Rams would end that streak in Los Angeles. The Saints came into this game hoping to give the Rams a taste of their own medicine in the Dome.

Who Dat home field advantage would play a huge role in helping them win this battle. The way the Saints utilized the run game would also be crucial to the Saints winning. With a dual threat backing in what Rex Ryan called “the two-headed monster with Ingram and Kamara”, the Saints needed both heads to beat this tough Rams defense.

Ryan was also watching the Saints’ situational defense, adding “In situational football on defense, New Orleans is not very good. Thirtieth in the league on red zone defense and 27th on third down defense.” The Saints’ ability to overcome these problems would determine whether or not they would give the Rams their first loss.

Fans try to distract the Rams offense. Photo credit: Phillip Petty III

More than 72,000 fans in attendance were on their feet for much of the game. From early in the morning on Lafayette St., where Sunday NFL Countdown was hosted live in New Orleans, till the 3:30 kickoff, the black and gold nation was hyped and ready for this battle. At times the noise meter in the dome exceeded the 100 dB level (like standing near a jet taking off), causing miscommunication between the Rams offense, and forcing them to burn two timeouts. Sean Payton admitted he’s “heard it louder and better”, but that it was “good.”

In an interview with JRNOLA journalists, ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown anchor Matt Hasselbeck described how playing in the Superdome can cause an offense to run plays that they know may not work. He told us how his coaches would tell him to take a penalty rather than call a timeout because of how precious timeouts were when playing in the Dome.

“Playing at home is a huge advantage. It’s awesome in these big games,” Saints’ linebacker Alex Anzalone said of the the crowd.

The Saints’ defensive troubles showed up early in the game. The defense started off allowing back-to-back red zone touchdowns in the first half, but would only allow a field goal after their first two defensive drives. The black and gold defense stepped up big after running back Mark Ingram fumbled the ball. The Rams were forced to take a field goal in the red zone, took a chance and faked it, but they came up inches short of the first down.

“That was a big play. Obviously, (you can) just call it a three or seven-point swing. They knew it was close and it was a huge stop because we just had the turnover. That was significant,” Head Coach Sean Payton said of the fake field goal attempt stop.

Dennis Allen’s defense stepped up once more on the following Ram’s drive on a third and 13 and forced the Rams’ offense to kick a 51-yard field goal.  Although they allowed 35 points, they forced one interception and only allowed the Rams’ offense to convert on third down three out of eight times and in the red zone three out of five times. A crucial defensive stand sealed the game as the Rams failed to convert on 4-2 in their final drive and failed to overcome a two score deficit late in the final minutes of the game.

“They have a high-powered offense. We are trying to stop Todd Gurley. I don’t know what he ended up with, but it seems like we did a pretty good job in the run defense part. I think he broke four big ones. That’s something that we need to focus on,” Saints’ defensive end Cameron Jordan on their defense.

On offense, the Saints pretty successfully mixed the run game with the passing game. With a powerful defensive line that consisted of four first-round draft picks in Dante Fowler Jr., Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald, the Rams came to play and do all they could to stop the two-headed monster. The Saints offense was too efficient even for them, with Drew Brees continuing his fantasy-busting tear.

Payton’s offense was also able to integrate lots of rushing into the game plan, which helped them take their lead. Rushing the ball the a total of 19 times, three coming from quarterbacks Brees and Taysom Hill, the Saints averaged 5.4 yards per carry and posted two rushing touchdowns from Alvin Kamara.

“They’re standing next to each other. So as you’re looking at it, you feel like they’re dropping and will double somebody. You just don’t know which one it is. Sometimes they can do three on two and different stuff like that. But, the minute the ball was snapped it felt like, ‘Okay, Kamara is doubled, then Mike was single. Mike’s prominent, here we go’,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees on pre-snap reads of bracket coverage on Kamara during the game.

There were many doubts that the Saints would beat the undefeated Rams. These Saints have demonstrated many weaknesses in this and past seasons, from the running game to the entire defense, but each player stepped up in the 45-35 win over the Rams. Drew Brees finished with 346 yards and four touchdowns. Kamara and Ingram were very efficient combining for 115 yards against the Rams’ powerful defensive line. Michael Thomas showed why he is the Saints core receiver after setting a single game record with 211 receiving yards. He also had 12 receptions and one touchdown.

“Good win; obviously a hard fought win. We had two good teams going back and forth. The momentum shifted the second half in their favor. Credit those guys, they fought back and really came right back into the game. In the end we made enough plays, we won an important game and I’m excited about that,” said Head Coach Sean Payton about the win.

With this win, the Saints move to 7-1 on the season. They showed that they could be the best team in the league, by overcoming all weakness and exceeding all expectations. Next week, the Saints take on the Cincinnati Bengals in a 12:00 Sunday afternoon showdown.