The Los Angeles Rams are one game away from the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season and the first time in Los Angeles since 1989.
Their opponent is one that they have already seen this season in Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. If they can get past the Saints, they’ll book their trip to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII and a chance to win the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
The first matchup between the two teams saw the Saints jump out to 35-17 lead in the first half, a deficit that proved too large for the Rams to erase, in what ended up being a 45-35 loss. In that game, the main culprit was the defense, which allowed the Saints to put up 487 yards of offense while offering little resistance to New Orleans’ passing attack (346 yards 4 TDs for Brees). The Rams secondary had no answers for wide receiver Michael Thomas, who caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown in the game.
The good news is, this time around, the Rams will have corner Aqib Talib who missed the first matchup with an injury. Talib might be the most important player in the game for the Rams, as he will likely have the primary duty of shadowing Thomas, moving fellow corner Marcus Peters off to one of the Saints other wideouts. The Talib-Thomas battle on the outside will be fascinating to watch, but equally as important will be the Rams front seven against the Saints running game.
The Saints averaged over four yards per carry in the first meeting, and the Rams struggled this season against the run, allowing 5.1 yards per carry to opposing running backs. That script got turned on its head last week, as the Rams allowed just 50 total rushing yards to the league’s leading rusher in Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Whether or not that performance will continue this week is up for debate, but one thing is for sure, the Saints offensive line showed itself to be vulnerable last week against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles got consistent pressure up the middle due to Andrus Peat’s injury. Peat has practiced this week, but he is still playing just a few weeks removed from hand surgery and will be going up against Aaron Donald. Donald has been able to get pressure all season and going against a guard dealing with an injury should provide opportunities for more.
On offense, the Rams proved last week that they are capable of dominating a good run defense, as they ran for 273 yards and three touchdowns against a Cowboys team that ranked in the top 5 in rush defense this year. However, the Saints present an even tougher challenge, as they were the second best team in the league by average yards per game allowed (80.2). The Saints will be without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins who tore his Achilles in last week’s game, but linebackers Demario Davis, A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone have all been disruptive (21 TFL) in the run game this season.
How Sean McVay uses the dual running back combination of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson will be fascinating to watch. Last week, it was Anderson who got the majority of the carries, giving Gurley a chance to ease back into things after missing the final two games of the regular season with a knee injury. Gurley, as always, will be a big part of the plan, but Anderson has had three straight 100-plus-yard games for the team since signing with them in late December.
Vegas has the Saints as three point favorites, but that is the customary three points given to any team that is playing at home. Basically, what the oddsmakers are saying is, these teams are fairly even, the biggest edge New Orleans has is that the game is in their home stadium. We’ll find out on Sunday, but this should once against be a thrilling game to watch.