If you thought the Chiefs and Patriots was the best NFL television you’d see all season, you might find a rival to that game in the NFC this week.
That’s because the last undefeated team in the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams (8-0), are getting ready to play their stiffest competition yet. And that would be the dynamic Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (7-1).
The Saints seem like they’re in big games every week. First, they downed (with a little luck) the Baltimore Ravens and their No. 1 defense on the road. Then they went to Minnesota and beat the NFC North-favorite Vikings by 10 points.
Now they’re back at the cozy confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they tend to do their most damage.
As for the Rams, there’s not a whole lot to pick on this team for. If the Dante Fowler Jr. acquisition works out, they have top-ranked pass-rush. That’s on top of the great quarterback, receivers, running back, and No. 1 corner they also have.
Did I happen to mention they have the No. 1 ranked offensive line too, according to Football Outsiders?
Yeah, these two teams are absolute goliaths, and I’m going to break them down step-by-step today and tell you who’s going to win and cover the spread.
Right now, the Saints sit as -1.5-point (-110) favorites at home in the latest line from Bovada.
Saints Offense vs Rams Defense
I’m not sure if the Dante Fowler Jr. experiment will work or not for the Rams. But they seem fairly balanced either way.
But that’s mostly on the surface. You see, people can look at a top-10 passing defense and the 12th-best rushing defense and presume this is one of the more stable units. They’re 8th in terms of total yardage allowed.
But their offense has dominated (6th) time of possession this year and has helped boost these defensive numbers. In terms of yards-per-attempt by opposing quarterbacks, they only rank 20th. Even worse, they’re 27th per-play against the run.
Their 3rd down (20th) defense and red zone (16th) numbers aren’t much better.
They have the potential of a ferocious pass-rush now that Fowler is joining one of the league’s best, Aaron Donald (10 sacks), and lane-stuffer Ndamukong Suh on the line.
They also have a legit No. 1 corner in former All-Pro Marcus Peters.
But to this point, they’ve been a bit overhyped on this side of the ball. Playing the likes of Arizona, San Francisco, Denver, and Oakland are bound to pump your numbers up a bit as well.
Ranking in the top-10 in takeaways has helped get them out of some tougher spots. But the inconsistency of their opponents’ offensively, aside from maybe the Chargers and Vikings, has also aided them frequently.
They won’t be getting much help from Drew Brees and the Saints offense.
Their ability to use so many different pieces on offense sets them apart. They have Drew Brees (1,990, 14 touchdowns-1INT) having one his finest seasons and the same goes for No. 1 wideout Michael Thomas (58 receptions, 669 yards, 4 touchdowns).
The passing game is 7th in YPA and Alvin Kamara has been a huge help again coming out of the backfield. It’s made up for the lackluster run-game up to this point, which only ranks 27th in YPA.
Unlike many of the other teams the Rams have faced, the Saints are able to maintain possession for extended periods of time. They’re on the edge of the top-10 on 3rd down, 8th in red zone efficiency, and 5th in time of possession.
They can control a game if you give an inch. Brees specifically is picking apart secondaries at an astounding clip, rating highest in completion percentage and QB rating. There’s not a whole lot he can’t do behind the 3rd-best offensive line in the league, one that’s kept him upright in the pocket all year.
Rams Offense vs Saints Defense
Don’t expect Jared Goff and his crew to miss this shootout.
His 2,425 yards and 17 touchdowns-to-five interceptions are big-time QB numbers, even from a guy who has plenty of perimeter help. Brandin Cooks and the now-healthy Cooper Kupp are as reliable as receivers get.
But no matter how much people hype the passing game, which is ranked 1st in YPA, the running game easily matches it.
And that’s because of the guy who should be the league MVP up to this point, Todd Gurley.
His 1,051 total yards and 15 overall TDs would be great as a full-season stat line. But those are only through half of one.
And all this success starts in the trenches, where the offensive line has very few vulnerable spots.
All in all, this team ranks 2nd in the league in total offense, 6th in 3rd down situations, and is the 2nd-most efficient group. It also helps that their ball-control (3rd in turnover margin) is as good as it is.
Simply put, this is the most well-balanced offense in the NFL. And it really isn’t even close.
As for the Saints, they’ve got a lot of gaps to fill to stop the aerial attack. Making Sean McVay’s offense one-dimensional will be a big deal.
They have unequivocally the best rush-D in the league. Which makes their matchup with this great O-line even more exciting to watch.
But teams focus more on beating them through the air and there’s a reason for that. Five of the seven QBs that played them this year had 275-plus yards against them. And I’m talking about a group with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, and Joe Flacco, not Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes.
They’re currently 30th (YPA) against the pass. They also have one of the worst (27th) third-down defenses in the league thanks to a lack of pass-rush. They give one of the worst completion percentages in the NFL and are 30th in red zone D.
It’s a wonder their offense is anywhere near the top-five in time of possession. That’s especially since New Orleans isn’t all that great in the takeaway department (21st) either.
They have some good pieces with Marshon Lattimore at CB and Cameron Jordan at DE. But losing a versatile lineman like Marcus Davenport to a toe injury is going to affect them heavily in this game.
3 Keys for Los Angeles
1. Put Pressure on Brees:
This will always be No. 1 when playing the Saints. Brees is one of the best around, but pressure does have an effect on him.
He’s among the league-best when he’s not pressured. But he had the least amount of pressure applied to him last season of any QB in the league. Thank a quick release and a good line for that. But the Rams must get to him or they will be burnt.
2. Find Balance Through the Offensive Line:
I feel like I’ll always come back to this one. But it’s even more important now. Because if the Rams find anywhere near the same balance they’ve had all year, this one is over.
The Saints are keying on taking the run-game out of the equation with the No. 1 run defense. But the No.1-ranked offensive line needs to flex its muscles against them Sunday, primarily to establish the run.
It is a passing league now and airing it out won’t be too hard. But if you take away the one thing the Saints can do defensively, it’s a major kill-shot.
3. Find Success Away from Lattimore:
Really, Marshon Lattimore is the only guy you have to stay away from in this secondary.
He’ll likely be posted in front of Kupp for a lot of this game but could also face Cooks a lot as well. Golf needs to pick his spots and should have ample time in the pocket to figure things out.
Stay away from him and he could throw for 400 yards Sunday.
3 Keys for New Orleans
1. Shake Up Gurley, and Do It Quick:
No, I’m not talking about what the old Saints did to Brett Favre. I’m talking about shutting him down early on the ground and gaining some momentum against him.
Yes, one of the big targets won’t be getting enough attention from the defense. But it’s worth it if you can neutralize the best player in football right now.
2. Control the Clock:
This is so huge for the Saints. They need to do anything to throw this Rams’ offense of its bearings just a bit.
Taking away time of possession against a team that really doesn’t have that great of defensive numbers all around is huge. If they start exposing the YPA of the Rams defense, New Orleans will take the shootout.
3. Early Points:
I will say, I was impressed to see the Rams come back against the Packers. They hadn’t faced adversity like that yet.
But if Drew Brees gets an early jump on this defense in the Superdome, things could get messy real fast.
I wouldn’t mind them choosing to take the kickoff to start the game if they win the coin-toss. Everything feeds off their passing game and they need the first punch to force Golf to respond quickly.
Who Will Win and Why
There’s so much to like about both of these teams, that it’s hard to pick a loser.
But the way the Saints have pulled through against tough opponents on the road the last two games has really impressed me. Now they’re playing at home, where they’ve lost only three times since the start of the 2017 season.
It’s hard to get past the Saints’ numbers against the pass though. The lack of pass-rush, especially now with Davenport out, is a huge detriment.
So with these two great offenses, it comes down to who can make a late stop. I think both offenses will get big starts early and it’ll come down to the defenses making one or two key contributions.
And I think the Rams are the more likely team to do that.
Yes, they will be eaten up by Brees for the better part of the game and the crowd will be wild. But the Rams cancel out the only great thing New Orleans does on defense and can feast on everything else.
LA at least has shown it can force turnovers and pressure the quarterback if not much else. I know they’ve played a lot of sub-par teams, but they’ve outscored opponents by 109 points this season, so they’ve taken care of business.
They will eventually lose, probably to Kansas City. But I think they’ll pass their biggest test with flying colors and the deep ball.
I’m picking the Rams to cover and win outright at EVEN odds in New Orleans.