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Complete Game Deconstruction

Los Angeles Rams vs. New Orleans Saints Prediction, Preview, and Odds

The NFC championship game Sunday in New Orleans is a rematch of a Week 9 showdown won by the Saints over the Los Angeles Rams. This time, however, the winners claim a spot in Super Bowl LIII.

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The cream has risen to the top of the NFC, as expected, as the top-seeded New Orleans Saints will host the No. 2-seeded Los Angeles Rams in the conference title game Sunday for the right to play in Super Bowl LIII.

The game is a rematch of a Week 9 showdown in New Orleans, won 45-35 by the Saints as they dealt Los Angeles its first loss of the season after an 8-0 start. The teams finished 13-3, but that victory gave Sean Payton’s team home-field advantage for this contest.

This is just the third time in Saints franchise history they have been in the NFC title game, all with quarterback Drew Brees. They lost at Chicago in the 2007 postseason and beat Minnesota at home in overtime in 2010 before upsetting Indianapolis to win Super Bowl XLIV.

The Rams are making their first conference championship game appearance since “The Greatest Show on Turf” led by Kurt Warner defeated Philadelphia at home in St. Louis in 2002 before losing Super Bowl XXXVI to New England.

That upset kick-started the rise of the Patriots — a potential opponent in Atlanta on Feb. 3 — as the greatest NFL team of this generation.

The last time the Rams were in a NFC title game when the franchise was situated in Los Angeles, they were bludgeoned 30-3 at San Francisco in the 1990 postseason. The Rams have lost their last two conference championship games on the road since beating Tampa Bay 9-0 in 1980 before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.

(Update — Sunday 11 a.m. CST)

In terms of injuries, one notable player to keep an eye on is Saints tight end Ben Watson. He is listed as questionable with an illness, with reports the veteran is dealing with appendicitis and will be inactive. Watson’s expected absence would mean a bigger role for Dan Arnold, who had 12 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown.

Another receiving option, Keith Kirkwood, is definitely out due to a calf injury. Kirkwood caught a pass in last week’s divisional round win over Philadelphia and had 13 catches for 209 yards and a pair of scores.

Saints offensive lineman Andrus Peat is expected to play despite his broken hand.

By contrast, the Rams did not list anyone on their injury list.

The line opened with the Saints as three-point favorites, but early action saw the home team get the hook added to 3.5. The over/under opened at 57 points and has held steady early.

Since the first run, the line dropped back to three points on Thursday morning. After a couple of brief flirtations back at 3.5, it fell back to three points late Friday night and has remained there since.

The over under has been fought over at 57 and 56.5 points the entire week, and the fight has raged into championship morning. It entered the overnight at 56.5 points and has flipped back and forth throughout Sunday morning. As of 11:30 a.m. EST per Vegas Insider, the consensus movements had it at 56.5 points.

(Bookmark this page because there will be updates with breakdowns, videos and quotes from both teams on Friday!!)

A Quick Review of the Season to Date

Los Angeles Rams Review

The Rams (14-3) were sluggish early before getting their running game going and grinding down Dallas in a 30-22 victory Saturday night.

Todd Gurley rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown but was overshadowed by the surprising contributions of late-season signing C.J. Anderson, who bulled his way to 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 23 carries.

Anderson, who was signed as an insurance policy when Gurley was dealing with an inflamed knee that sidelined him the final two weeks of the season, has rushed for 422 yards and four touchdowns in three games with Los Angeles. The Rams set a postseason-franchise record with 273 rushing yards, an effort all the more impressive considering the Cowboys finished fifth in the regular season against the run after yielding 94.6 per game and held Seattle — the No. 1 rushing team — to 73 in the wild-card round.

“Having both of them is special,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff told the New York Times, “because it gives you a real dual threat of backs.”

“It’s scary,” Anderson told The Associated Press after teaming with Gurley to become the fourth pair of running backs to rush for over 100 yards in a playoff game. “We’ve got two different styles, and we can keep teams off balance.”

Goff played more of a caretaker role in this game given the proficiency of the ground game, completing 15 of 28 passes for 186 yards. He also contributed with his legs, delivering a game-sealing 11-yard run for a first down with 1:51 to play.

Los Angeles’ ball control on offense allowed the defense to stay fresh as the Rams had possession for over 36 minutes. As a note of comparison, the Rams held the ball only for 26-plus minutes in their first meeting against the Saints and it was also their second-lowest mark of the season.

The other came in a loss at Chicago in which Los Angeles had the ball for barely more than 23 minutes. All three defeats have come when the Rams have had possession for less than 28:30.

“We feel like we can, and we’re going to beat either team we have to play,” center John Sullivan told the Los Angeles Times after the win and before Sunday’s divisional round game was played. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in New Orleans. It doesn’t matter if it’s home against the Eagles.

“We’re confident we’re going to win that game.”

New Orleans Saints Review

The Saints (14-3) overcame a 14-point first-quarter deficit to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14, the biggest postseason comeback in franchise history. It also marked the first time the Saints won a home game scoring 20 or fewer points since a 16-14 victory over Carolina in Week 4 of the 2010 season.

Drew Brees threw for 301 yards and two touchowns, including a go-ahead 2-yard strike to Michael Thomas in the third quarter to cap a game-altering 18-play, 92-yard drive that consumed 11:29 off the clock. New Orleans had to overcome Philadelphia’s defense as much as its own mistakes on that drive, which included three penalties and a key 3rd-and-16 conversion.

The other key play was a risky decision by coach Sean Payton to call for a fake punt on 4th-and-1 from the New Orleans 30 in the second quarter. Utility back Taysom Hill gained four yards to move the chains an extend a drive that concluded with the Saints’ first touchdown on another fourth down conversion.

“It was a calculated risk,” Brees told the Washington Post about the fake punt. “It’s not like we’re just flying by the seat of our pants out there. These are things we’ve talked about. These are conversations we’ve had for critical situations. . . . If you don’t have a play you like, you don’t go for it.”

Thomas, who was double-covered in the first meeting against Philadelphia and had only four receptions on four passes thrown his way, delivered a huge performance with 12 receptions for a playoff club-record 171 yards. In three career postseason games, Thomas has already racked up 27 receptions for 387 yards and three TDs.

“It’s win or go home. I do whatever it takes. If you are double or tripled team, it doesn’t matter,” he told NOLA.com. “You just have to do your job. You just need to concentrate on what you are doing and things will open up. We have a lot of preparation during the week. We responded. I don’t know if  it was a breakout game, but you just go out and make plays when your number is called.”

The defense also did its job by coming up with two turnovers, both interceptions by Marshon Lattimore. His second one on a pass off the hands of Alshon Jeffery at the New Orleans’ 19-yard line ended Philadelphia’s final drive.

The Saints defense limited the Eagles to 250 total yards, aided by the Saints’ ball-control offense. New Orleans held possession for nearly 38 minutes, which contributed to Philadelphia running only 47 plays.

“It took us a minute to settle in and just play, execute everything that we were doing,” Lattimore said. “But once that second half came I think they only had 50 passing yards in the second half. We really locked in and turned up. We played with some swag in the second half. And I love when we be like that. Our defense is better when we  play like that.”

The Saints have won seven straight playoff home games since a 36-20 loss to Philadelphia in the 1993 wild-card round, and Brees is 6-0 at home in the postseason with New Orleans. He has thrown for 1,830 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions in those victories while compiling a 114.3 passer rating.

(stay tuned for a full write-up on Friday).

Los Angeles Rams Offense vs. New Orleans Saints Defense

Running the Ball: Who Has the Edge?

Los Angeles Rams Rushing Offense

So what has made Anderson so successful since the moment he walked onto the field for the Rams? His biggest asset is a familiarity with zone-run blocking schemes that go back to the earliest part of his pro career with the Denver Broncos, who cut him in April before both Carolina and Oakland did during the season.

The verbiage in McVay’s offense may have changed from his days in Denver, but the principles and the holes it opens up have not.

Another factor is his size. The Rams list Anderson at 225 pounds on their roster. Whether that’s accurate is up for debate, but the more footage of him from the win over Denver, the more the inclination is to believe Los Angeles may be hiding a pound or 10. Whatever the number, Anderson hits a hole fast and hits it hard when he’s going downhill. No member of an opposing secondary is going to be happy trying to stop him, especially up the middle.

The other important attribute Anderson brings to the Rams offense is lightening the load for Gurley, who may be less than 100 percent but definitely more than capable of ripping off big plays in this game when called upon.

The three weeks off clearly helped him, but to have a player of his caliber fresh in the third and fourth quarters is a huge bonus considering few can catch him when he’s at his top-end speed.

Gurley was already a load in the second half for opponents, gaining 691 yards on 132 rushes while averaging 5.2 yards per carry compared to 560 and 4.5 in the first half on eight fewer carries. His 5.6 yards per rush and 372 yards in the fourth quarter were also his best splits.

“I don’t even, honestly, remember last year. I just know this is a new year,” Gurley told the team’s official website. “Just looking at [Aqib] Talib today — him and [Marcus] Peters. It’s just like — this is it. This is the reason we traded for you. This is the reason we traded for Peters. This is the reason we signed Sam Shields, we signed [Ndamukong] Suh, to be in this position like this.”

New Orleans Saints Rushing Defense

The running game has changed dramatically on both sides of the ball. As the Rams have incorporated Anderson, the Saints must adjust to the absence of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles tendon in last weekend’s win over Philadelphia.

While the clip above is a pass play, Rankins was a highly valued part of New Orleans’ elite run defense, which has allowed only four teams to rush for 100 yards and finished the regular season second against the run at 80.2 yards per game — and limited Philadelphia to 49. The breakdown below is a good indication of how much he meant to that part of the defense.

The relevant parts to the first meeting are this: Gurley had just 13 carries in the first meeting because Los Angeles spent the entire second half erasing an 18-point halftime deficit. He also averaged 5.2 yards per carry — above the 4.8 the team had for the game and substantially higher than the 3.6 the Saints gave up per rush on the season.

The bottom line is the Saints are going to see much more of the Rams’ ground game between both Gurley and Anderson this time around, and there is a significant hole up front without Rankins. New Orleans is expected to replace Rankins by committee, with Tyeler Davison, David Onyemata and rookie Taylor Stallworth all likely to see playing time.

“I think when you got two dynamic running backs, you don’t have to worry about when you’re calling to call runs,” linebacker Demario Davis told NFL.com. “They can call runs all game and don’t got to worry about somebody wearing down. If they’re having success, they can call 50, 60 runs in a game, so it’s our job to stop it. They’re tough and they can pose a matchup problem for defenses, so we got to be locked in.”

Who Has the Edge?

The addition of Anderson and the subtraction of Rankins moves the needle in this portion of the contest from a push to the Rams’ favor. If Los Angeles’ offensive line is able to fire off the line of scrimmage and go forward without someone collapsing the middle, Gurley and Anderson are going to get four, five and six yards per pop.

And playing the Rams at 2nd and 4, 5, or 6 is much different than 2nd-and-7, 8, or 9 given the creativity of McVay as well as the versatility of Gurley in the backfield to catch screen passes. But Los Angeles is most certainly going to try and land body blows via the run game early and often.

Advantage: Los Angeles Rams

Aerial Assault: Who Has the Upper Hand?

Los Angeles Rams Passing Offense

Just because Goff had the look of a quarterback simply managing the game in his second career playoff start does not mean McVay lacks trust in his signal-caller. Last weekend against Dallas is an example of something McVay does rather well in terms of play-calling: If it works, stick with it until it doesn’t work.

Goff was efficient. Eleven of his 15 completions went for first downs, he was 3 for 6 with two first downs on third-down passes, and on those few running plays on first down that did not generate much yardage, he was 4 for 5 for 36 yards and a pair of first downs when the Rams faced 2nd and 8, 9, or 10 yards.

“I don’t think any moment’s too big for him,” McVay told the team’s official website. “I think he’s just going to go about his normal weekly rhythm this week. Certainly, we don’t shy away from what is at stake in terms of what we can accomplish, but we also know what a great challenge it is.

“But I just think that, like you’ve heard us say over and over, he really doesn’t allow himself to get too high or too low,” McVay continued. “And that’s why you feel confident that — you know it’s a great challenge, but you do feel confident in his ability to perform and lead our offense at a high level on Sunday.”

It was a lies, damned lies and statistics game for Goff, who recorded two 400-yard games this season and six others with 300 or more. One of those 300-yard games came at New Orleans as he finished 28 of 40 for 391 yards and three TDs with that one costly interception near the end of the first half.

The receiving corps adjusted well after losing Kupp. Woods and Cooks became the first set of Rams receivers with 1,200 or more yards since Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt in 2004, with Woods enjoying a career year and Cooks setting a career best in yards.

Tight end Gerald Everett became more involved in the passing game, totaling 20 receptions on 29 targets for 174 yards and three touchdowns in the six games following Kupp’s injury. And there’s also that small matter of Gurley having 50 receptions and being a nightmare matchup when the Rams choose to run a wheel route for him.

Kopp has the potential to win this game if the Rams need him to, but they are not going to mind if the running game puts him in favorable positions for him to secure the victory.

New Orleans Saints Passing Defense

In losing Rankins, the Saints lose their second-best pass rusher in terms of sacks (8) and quarterback hurries (15). It should be noted, though, that the Saints failed to sack Goff in their Week 9 win, and Rankins did not get credited with a hurry.

The team’s leading sacker, Cameron Jordan, also did not register a quarterback hurry in that game. With Anderson presenting a new angle offensively, the pressure on the Saints pass defense in this game is to somehow at least knock Goff off his rhythm.

The problem for the Saints is they were terrible in “zero coverage” this season. Opposing quarterbacks had a 120.90 passer rating against the Saints when they blitzed, the second-highest mark in the league. Teams completed 87 of 128 passes for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns with only one interception.

The Saints secondary proved they were up to the challenge last week, with Lattimore recording those two clutch interceptions. Alex Anzalone provided the huge momentum swing in the first meeting between these teams with this interception late in the first half.

Rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport did not play in the first game because of a toe injury. With Rankin out, there is a chance he can be moved inside to help generate a pass rush and take some of the pressure off Jordan on the edge. This is a case, though, where the secondary may be forced to play back in Cover-2 and Cover-3 because if the rush cannot get to Goff, it will be a long day for New Orleans.

Who Has the Edge?

If the Rams get their running game going, and Goff can set up play-action against New Orleans’ safeties, look out. The other problem is what new Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur called “the illusion of complexity,” something that is readily visible when it comes to McVay and the Rams and something he was part of with the Rams staff before leaving for Tennessee for 2018.

Los Angeles runs multiple plays — run and pass — out of the same formation with various personnel, most notably its bunch receiver set. Goff can do just about anything from that set, from simply handing the ball off to running a naked bootleg to a quick-hitter to a semi-rollout and post pattern.

And for all the talk of missing what Kupp brings to the offense, Josh Reynolds has not shied away from stepping up. He totaled 22 catches for 304 yards in the six games starting in place of Kupp, and McVay had no hesitations calling his number as Goff threw his way 41 times.

The run game is going to determine exactly what the Rams do to the Saints in the passing game, but unless New Orleans generates some heat to make Goff antsy, it is not likely going to end well unless Goff misses a throw.

Advantage: Los Angeles Rams

New Orleans Saints Offense vs. Los Angeles Rams Defense

Who Has the Edge in the Ground Game?

New Orleans Saints Rushing Offense

Given the receiving weapons at his disposal, it would have been easy — oh, so easy — for Payton and Brees to go into a pass-happy attack to overturn that early 14-0 deficit versus the Eagles.

But they didn’t, and that is why they already have won Super Bowl together and on the cusp of making a second appearance. Payton trusted Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to work the Saints back into the game, and they delivered with 124 yards on 25 carries.

The Saints had enough success against the Rams — more through Kamara than Ingram — in the first meeting, but the offensive line may have one question mark.

Terron Armstead appears to be as healthy as he can be after missing five weeks with a torn pectoral muscle, but fellow offensive lineman Andrus Peat is a concern at left guard. He underwent hand surgery during the bye week and was clearly the weak link last weekend and accounted for four of New Orleans’ 11 penalties.

“He’s a fighter,” Armstead said of Peat to NOLA.com. “A lot of guys on our team, that’s just what we do. That’s how we’re made. He’s not somebody that’s going to speak on it or look for sympathy. Whatever he’s dealing with, he’ll fight.”

The Saints, though, cannot afford such lapses — one of which nullified a touchdown — against a Rams defensive line that has star power in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh but also has lacked effectiveness stopping the run.

Los Angeles Rams Rushing Defense

The Rams run defense was historic, and not in a good way. Their 5.05 yards allowed per carry marked the first time an NFL team yielded at least five yards per rush since the 2013 Chicago Bears conceded 5.35 yards each time an opponent toted the rock.

The inability to stop the run is all the more jarring considering the Rams have the premier defensive tackle in the game in Donald and at worst, what should be a serviceable veteran presence in Suh helping him. And that doesn’t even include Dante Fowler, who was acquired from Jacksonville to bolster the run defense.

Yet all of those negatives were thrown out the window in the divisional round when the Rams rose up and limited the NFL leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on 20 carries. Suh and Donald each had a tackle for a loss that was part of an effort that dropped Elliott behind the line of scrimmage three times versus only one run of 10 or more yards.

Doing it once against Elliott against a run-strong Dallas offense is undeniably impressive. But the Saints have an inside runner (Ingram) and an outside runner (Kamara) who can twist this defense into knots and also does so with a variety of personnel packages that do not always tip off running plays.

Kamara had seven first downs on his 19 rushes and four carries of 10 or more yards. How the Rams prevent him from getting on the edge — which may mean more stretching than penetrating — is going to be a vital component of their success.

Who Has the Edge?

One great week a run defense does not make, especially when the Saints are so starkly different in terms of both offensive philosophy and personnel than the Cowboys. New Orleans also has already enjoyed success against this run defense, and there are undoubtedly wrinkles Payton is ready to unveil for this game.

The X-factor in all this may be Samson Ekuban since he will not face many double teams as New Orleans schemes likely include double teams of Donald and Suh. The plan of getting Kamara to the edges is a sound one considering that is where he does most of his damage in the running game, and until Los Angeles proves it can stop him, that is where New Orleans will go.

Advantage: New Orleans Saints

Who Has the Upper Hand in the Passing Attack?

New Orleans Saints Passing Offense

It has been seen ad nauseum this week leading up to this game, but Thomas’ 72-yard touchdown pass over Peters that sealed the Week 9 victory for the Saints is instrumental for many reasons.

The first is the most obvious: Thomas had his way with Peters and the Rams secondary in that game. Brees threw his way 15 times and Thomas finished with 12 catches for a franchise-record 211 yards. It was a game for Thomas to remember and Peters to forget.

The second is the yards after the catch Thomas had in this game: He finished with a career-high 102 yards after the catch, a number exceeded by only seven players after that game. The third-year superstar finished third among all wideouts this season with 509 yards after the catch, accounting for 36.2 percent of his receiving total of 1,405.

The third is how the Saints scheme in multiple ways to involve Thomas: There is no part of the route tree Thomas lacks, whether it’s straight fly, slant-in, rub routes, etc., etc. Payton will line up Thomas anywhere on the line of scrimmage, he will not care if it’s Peters or Talib is opposite. Or perhaps he will to work a specific matchup that involves Thomas as a decoy (hello, Alvin Kamara and hello, Ted Ginn Jr.).

Thomas is going to be very busy. How Payton and Brees find the most favorable Rams coverages to take advantage of his vast skill-set will determine whether he has another big game against Los Angeles.

Talib’s return, though, provides something Payton and Brees must take into account. The veteran cornerback is well-versed in terms of coverage roles and defensive assignments while with Denver and current defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Saints may walk Kamara wide for some plays, but the onus is going to be on New Orleans’ second and third wideouts — Ginn and rookie Tre’Quan Smith — who must move the chains when their numbers are called.

Brees made it a point to try and find Ginn, underthrowing him for an interception on New Orleans’ first play for scrimmage as he completed 3 of 7 passes thrown his way for 44 yards. Smith caught the only ball thrown his way for 15 yards, and the pair must make Talib and Peters at least respect them to take some pressure off Thomas and balance the vertical part of the offense.

Los Angeles Rams Passing Defense

While the Saints have an issue with the pass rush that did not get to Goff, the Rams had the same issue in Week 9 as they failed to sack Brees. Still, Donald is a presence who must be accounted for, often with double teams.

If Peat is ineffective early due to his hand injury, Payton is going to have to make the executive decision to replace him because one of the reasons Brees averaged 9.61 yards per attempt in that victory was a combination of no on getting to him and some of those quick-hitters coming out in rapid-fire fashion.

In the secondary, Talib brings a veteran’s nous, strong cover skills and most importantly as it pertains to matching up with Thomas — someone who will wrap up and tackle him if he does make a catch.

In the eight regular-season games Talib played, opposing quarterbacks only threw at him 26 times, completing 16 passes for 254 yards and no touchdowns while breaking up five passes. Talib was part of a focused effort that helped limit Amari Cooper to six catches for 65 yards on nine passes thrown his way. Thomas will likely see even more action, so Talib better be ready.

Who Has the Edge?

Even with Talib’s return and Brees’ respect in acknowledging the veteran as a “difference-maker,” the advantage still belongs to the Saints, albeit less than in Week 9. The other factor of Peat not being 100 percent in trying to slow down Donald and Suh could play a huge factor since the Rams generated little in the way of the pass rush.

Phillips has been around the block on one than more occasion with stakes this high, and having Talib will allow him to scheme for areas of the field where the Rams can limit the damage in the event the Saints are able to isolate Thomas away from Talib in matchups and unleash Kamara on the edges where he can do damage in space.

Advantage: New Orleans Saints

Special Teams, Coaching, & Intangibles

Special Teams

Los Angeles Rams

As McVay showed in the first game between the teams, he is not afraid to use his special teams offensively to get a first down, something made easier with the athleticism of Hekker.

While this play did not succeed by the narrowest of margins and wound up being a huge turning point in the Week 9 contest, it is clear Hekker is a weapon beyond his formidable punting skills.

McVay let Hekker try four passes this year, and he completed two of them for 19 yards. The last punter who did not also have snaps at quarterback to try more passes was Craig Hentrich with five for the Tennessee Titans in 2003.

Then there is his actual punting skills, which might only be matched by his counterpart in this game. Hekker was second in net with 43.0 yards per punt while putting 21 of his 43 boots inside the opponents’ 20 against only two touchbacks. On the 12 punts that were returned, the Rams yielded only 8.7 yards per runback.

Despite missing five games with a groin injury during the season, Greg Zuerlein showed he was back in the Week 9 matchup by drilling a season-best 56-yarder in the defeat. He went 3 for 4 against Dallas last weekend, connecing on a pair of chip shots under 30 yards and one for 44. The one he missed was a 63-yarder at the end of the half that he pushed wide right.

Zuerlein got four touchbacks on his seven kickoffs last weekend, slightly off his season mark of 76.0 percent. Los Angeles was serviceable on kickoff coverage, yielding 22.5 yards per return.

The Rams’ return game is in capable hands with JoJo Natson, who had 12 yards on a pair of punt return last weekend. He averaged 10.8 yards during the regular season, but the Saints coverage units conceded just 5.0 yards per return.

New Orleans Saints

Payton has a more traditional special teams weapon at his disposal when he wants to shake things up — utility back Taysom Hill. While Payton has used Hill in the Wildcat, as a running back, and a receiver, the rookie made his biggest play of the season last weekend by taking a fake punt four yards on 4th-and-1 from the New Orleans 30 to extend a drive that resulted in the Saints’ first touchdown.

Saints kicker Wil Lutz’s blocked 52-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter gave the Eagles life for one last drive after making his first two. But had the offense not lost three yards on the previous play, it is possible he would have made a 47-yarder and not required Lattimore’s heroics.

That said, he has been dependable this year and had missed only three kicks in the regular season while going 28 of 30 on field goals.

Punter Thomas Morstead led the NFL in net punting at 43.2 yards, and like Hekker is effective at pinning opponents deep. He put 15 of his 43 punts inside the opposing 20 against four touchbacks.

The Saints are letting Kamara run kickoffs back, while Tommylee Lewis is handling punt return duties. Neither distinguished themselves in any way, and it is also possible Hill can join them for returns just to provide a different look.

Who Has the Edge?

McVay and Payton may go about things differently in terms of chicanery, but both get very effective results. This category is almost a wash, with Zuerlein having a slight edge in terms of length for field goals for the kickers.

The Rams will have to be cognizant of where Hill is on the occasions they stop the Saints on third down to fourth and make sure he is not lining up in a position where he can take a direct snap like he did last week versus Philadelphia.

Both teams have solid coverage units, so any big return could wind up making a real impact in this game.

Advantage: Push

Coaching

Los Angeles Rams

In two years, McVay has gone 24-8 in the regular season with two division titles and is now 1-1 in the postseason. The biggest takeaways are the 32-year-old learns on the fly and sticks to what works. It would have been easy last week to “be creative” and involve Goff and the passing game more in the early going, but once he saw how well Gurley and Anderson were running over Dallas, he just kept calling running plays.

He is aggressive, though the best thing that may have happened to him this year was getting burnt in New Orleans with Goff’s interception late in the first half. While the fake field goal was a risk, it was an aggressive one that can be justified given how the teams were rolling up and down the field.

The decision to try and get that touchdown back down 28-14, however, was foolhardy considering the Rams got the ball first in the second half. Sometimes those are the mistakes you have to make to be better, and the hedge is McVay became better because of it.

New Orleans Saints

While Payton can sometimes be too clever by one half, he clearly has the pulse of his offense and an acute sense of timing of when to gamble.

The Saints went 13 for 16 on fourth down in the regular season, and then followed it up with both Hill’s fake punt and a 4th-and-2 go-ahead touchdown pass to Thomas that capped their monstrous 92-yard drive last weekend. Payton knew that taking three points from that drive would do his team no favors and even if they failed, the offense still has the confidence to get the job done.

Who Has the Edge?

Both are creative, both are innovative and both like to push the envelope offensively. What will be interesting to see is if either of them show restraint and take a “safe route” at any point in the contest when they could be aggressive.

You get the sense both understand the moment, even if it is new for McVay and old hat for Payton. Neither coach gets outschemed or outcoached — the first meeting between the teams turned on a fake field goal that narrowly missed being converted for a first down and an interception that, while a brash decision to try and make up the touchdown allowed following the fake field goal, was still an acceptable play at that point in the game.

This game is going to come down more to execution than coaching decisions, but both also know how to maximize leverage for their teams to succeed.

Advantage: Push

Intangibles

Los Angeles Rams

While Peters has been his usual loquacious self leading up to this game, there is a worry he may be too amped for this game. In some ways, it harkens back to the shootout with the Chiefs in which he was all over the place but also made a crucial interception late in the contest.

He got publicly dissed by Payton and should have been angry about it. However, what the Rams have to watch is to make sure it doesn’t become personal in the form of ill-advised penalties and blown assignments. Having Talib will go a long way in neutralizing those negative possibilities, but it is still there.

The other factor, of course, is a lack of conference championship game experience save a select few. These things often happen in steps like the ones the Rams are making now. Get to the playoffs last year, lose as an inexperienced team. Get to the playoffs this year, win that game they lost at home last year and are now on the road for the title game. Maybe the Rams have to lose before they win here as well, no one is really sure.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints have been here before with Brees and Payton and won. That cannot be overstated. They also have unfinished business from last year’s gut punch of a loss at Minnesota.

New Orleans has sufficiently regrouped from that and overcame adversity in the last round by digging itself out of that 14-0 hole. If the Saints do have one troubling trend, it has been their slow starts of late. In their last six games overall, they have totaled 36 points. Seventeen of those came in the win over Pittsburgh in Week 16.

Given the Rams’ offensive proficiency and capabilities, plus the potential of riding their new-found success running the ball, falling behind by two or more possessions early could be disastrous in the same way it was for Los Angeles as it fought an uphill battle the entire second half.

Who Has the Edge?

There is an old saying that “young teams find ways to lose games.” While the Rams do have veterans sprinkled throughout their roster, they are still young in some key areas. How they respond to the moment of the atmosphere in a hostile Superdome, the moments of adversity when things do not go their way, those will be the moments when their character is revealed.

New Orleans will face those same moments, albeit with the benefit of having a coach and a quarterback who have won a Super Bowl. Payton and Brees understand how the winning plays are made and also realize they can be made at any point in the game, just not at obvious designations.

It is a distinct advantage. Whether it is parlayed into something bigger depends on how the Rams play.

Advantage: New Orleans Saints

Final Outlook – Time to place those bets!

There is a very strong likelihood this game will be closer than the first one in the sense it will be competitive throughout the four quarters as opposed to Week 9 when the Saints tried to hide after building their 35-17 halftime lead and then being pulled back by the Rams in the second half.

Additionally, the combination of the Rams using Anderson and Gurley in tandem against a Saints defensive line missing one of its best players in Rankin also elevates the possibility of Los Angeles breaking off a big play on the ground. Lastly, Talib brings a different dynamic to the Rams secondary in which they can potentially limit the damage Thomas can do.

But is it still enough for the Rams to finish inside a field goal to cover since the line dropped from 3.5 to 3 on Thursday and may not reclaim that ground?

No.

The Saints still have too diverse an offense, whether it is running Kamara or sending him out as a receiver. Mark Ingram can still find yards between the tackles. Brees trusts every last one of his wide receivers and tight ends after Thomas to make a play — he didn’t throw touchdown passes to 13 different receivers on a whim.

Payton has proven more than capable of making adjustments on the fly, and he also has shown an ability to adapt when an opponent takes something away like the Eagles did in Week 11. The Rams will present different challenges in terms of scheme and personnel when it comes to taking things away, but Payton is capable of adjusting all the same.

The over/under is in a precarious position as of late Thursday night at 56.5 points, the hook looming ominously after a touchdown total. But at the same time, do all of the differences from Week 9 to now add up to dropping 24 points off the scoreboard for both teams?

Again, no.

If one of these teams does fall behind by more than two possessions, the passing games will slow the clock and either turn the game into a shootout or a more lopsided contest in either direction. Three of the Rams’ four TD drives against New Orleans took 3:39 or shorter while the Saints scored three of their six touchdowns on drives 2:28 or shorter.

There may be less scoring, but not so much less where the under will deliver. In the end, look for Who Dat nation to make the trip to Atlanta by fending off a game Rams team that needed to be “here” before it could get “there.”

Los Angeles Rams 31, New Orleans Saints 37
Updated: please continue below for details and new prediction.

Updated on Jan 17 at 10:20am EST

Bonus Take From Ben Hayes

The Saints had to come back to defeat the Eagles at home last week but now they must face Todd Gurley for the second time this season. Gurley will be the difference along with a defensive line that will pressure an aging and hobbled Saints’ offensive line that struggled to protect Brees last week. Brees is good with time but he won’t have enough and the Rams will be the ones celebrating in the Super Bowl. Sean McVay defeats an older version of himself in Sean Payton.  LA Rams 30-24.

Bonus Take From Ricky Dimon

This is a rematch of a Nov. 4 showdown that the Saints won 45-35, also in the Superdome. That’s the reason why they have home-field advantage and will once again entertain Todd Gurley and company in their own friendly confines. And that will likely be the difference on Sunday. It was last weekend when New Orleans erased a 14-0 deficit to overcome Philadelphia 20-14; no way the Saints win that kind of game on the road. The Rams struggled down the stretch of the regular season and although Gurley and C.J. Anderson ran all over Dallas, they won’t be able to do so against the Saints. L.A. is likely going be trailing on the scoreboard more often than not and will be forced to air it out at times with Jared Goff. A head-to-head Goff vs. Drew Brees battle? Advantage: Brees. Saints 34-27.

Bonus Take From David Hess

The Rams and Saints have been the best teams in the NFC all year long, so it is only fitting that the two are meeting up in the NFC Title game. The Saints have been a tough team to beat over the years at home, and the rams can attest to that as they beat them by 10 earlier here.  That was a heck of a game that saw plenty of offense and you can bet that this one will as well. The Rams have one of the best offenses in the league, but so do the Saints and the Saints have the advantage on defense. Although we do note that they have allowed 24.3 ppg at home, while the Rams have allowed just 19.9 ppg on the road. Despite that, the Rams allowed 45 points in the first meeting here and I feel that the Saints will put up some good numbers on them again, while their defense makes the proper adjustments to slow down the high-powered Rams attack enough to get the win. New Orleans 38-31.

Los Angeles Rams 31, New Orleans Saints 37

Additional Updates

The final word from Chris Altruda

I am in closest in agreement with Mr. Dimon, right down to nearly the point total. I still feel the over is the strongest play of the choices among the spread, money line and over/under because at the end of the day, there are very few scenarios in which these teams will combine for 24 points less than they did in the first meeting.

Watson’s likely absence will result in adjustments to the Saints’ offense, but it could also mean a heavier reliance on Kamara. And quite frankly, the more touches a star player makes, the better the chances of winning a game. And this game should be closer throughout than the first meeting with the Rams when they played catch-up the second half after their self-inflicted wounds in the second quarter.

This has the feel of who has the ball last wins, and the expectation is Brees will be that guy and make those plays.

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Chris Altruda (@AlTruda73)

A 1994 graduate of Marquette University when they were known as the Warriors and Brooklyn native, Chris Altruda is a freelance sportswriter based in Chicago. He has worked at three major U.S. wire services and also has prior experience in sports handicapping and daily fantasy roster building. Now that the Cubs have won a World Series, he holds out hope the Jets will win a Super Bowl before he dies. Can be followed on Twitter at @AlTruda73.

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