The NFL is down to four teams, two in each conference. This weekend decides who will play in the biggest sports event in America. In the NFC Championship Game, the one seed New Orleans Saints will host the two seed Los Angeles Rams in the Superdome.
For most of the season, the Saints and Rams were the top two teams in the NFC. However, they fell off a little over the last month of the season and did not look as dominant. Nevertheless, New Orleans and Los Angeles fittingly will meet in the NFC Championship and decide who represents the conference in SB LIII. They did play earlier this season with the Saints coming out on top 45-35. However, that was in the first week of November and the teams are much different now.
New Orleans Saints
For the Saints, this postseason run can define legacies. Specifically, Drew Brees at 40 years of age is in the home stretch of his career. If the Saints win the NFC Championship, Brees will have an opportunity to win a second Super Bowl. While he is clearly first-ballot a Hall of Famer and top 10 quarterback of all time, many people leave him out of their top six quarterbacks simply because he only has one ring. If Brees can end his career with a second Super Bowl championship, on top of all of his records, he can solidify himself as a top five quarterback ever.
On the other hand, Sean Payton currently is one of seven coaches in the NFL that have one Super Bowl victory. If he is able to capture a second, he will separate himself as the second-best coach in football behind Bill Belichick. A second ring would also essentially guarantee his entrance into Canton.
The team as a Whole
Over the first half of the season, this team was depending on a dominant offense to bail out its defense. But now, while the offense doesn’t look as dominant as before, the defense is playing a lot better. Specifically, New Orleans’ run defense is playing at a high level; last week it allowed the Eagles’ running backs to rush for only 37 yards on 13 carries.
On offense, Drew Brees had a sensational season with a 74.4 completion percentage, 32 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Last week on numerous occasions, he and First-Team All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas bailed the team out on 3rd and 10+ yards. In addition, the Saints running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram are always dangerous. While they didn’t put up great numbers over the last month of the season, Ingram and Kamara showed up in the Divisional Round. They combined for 124 rushing yards on 25 carries, almost five yards per carry.
The offensive line is arguably as valuable to a team as its quarterback play, and the Saints have got that covered too. Pro Football Focus ranked the Saints offensive line number eight in the NFL, even after including the time that All-Pro tackle Terron Armstead missed due to injury.
Defensively, the Saints are playing much better right now than they did in the first half of the season. Since Week 10, New Orleans has only given up 16.6 points per game; discounting the meaningless Week 17 game where they benched many starters, they have given up 14.5 points per game since that point. Overall the Saints were second in the NFL against the run, allowing 80.2 rush yards per game. This will be key against the Rams who build their offense around the running game of Todd Gurley and now C.J. Anderson.
Home Field Advantage
One last aspect of this game for the Saints is their home field advantage. After last week’s victory over Philadelphia, New Orleans is still undefeated, now 6-0 in the Superdome during the Brees/Payton era. The stadium and home crowd are huge advantages in the NFC Championship Game.
Los Angeles Rams
Light in Experience, Heavy in Talent
On the opposite side of the fence, the biggest pieces on the Rams are still just babies in their playoff career. This will be only the third playoff game many of their key contributors like head coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff participate in. However, the Rams are certainly a threat to win the NFC Championship and make the Super Bowl. They have the number two offense in football in terms of both points and yards, scoring over 32 points per game. They also have a number of superstars on the defensive side of the ball.
The Rams have the best defensive player in the NFL in Aaron Donald. They have arguably the best offensive non-QB in the NFL in Todd Gurley. They even have others stars Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Brandin Cooks. This team may be younger at the top than New Orleans. However, not only do they have a lot of talent, but they also have some veterans with solid playoff experience.
Matchup of the Game
Offensively, the Rams revolve around the running game, allowing it to set up the passing attack. Todd Gurley is arguably the best running back in football due to his contributions in both the running and receiving game. But the surprisingly key addition of C.J. Anderson makes this running attack even more lethal. In the three games Anderson has played in for LA, he has rushed for over 120 yards in EACH of them. Last week, Gurley had 16 carries for 115 yards and Anderson had 23 for 123. The Rams terrific rushing attack versus the Saints top two run defense will be the biggest matchup in this game.
Rest of the Team
The Rams passing attack has suffered a bit since Cooper Kupp went down with an ACL tear. However, it still ended the season top five in passing yards. If the Rams run game can get going, it will allow Jared Goff to make more throws off play action, which he thrives at. Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, each of whom had over 1,200 yards this season, are great receiving weapons; they will have to make plays in the NFC Championship to keep drives going.
On the other hand, the defense has been much more porous than expected this year after making significant additions. However, they certainly came to play last week against the Dallas Cowboys. Suh made his presence felt for seemingly the first time all season, helping to dominate the Cowboys O-line. They held All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott to a meager 47 yards on 20 carries. Again, they held Zeke, who led the league in rushing this year, to 2.35 yards per carry. If the Rams’ defense can do the same to Ingram and Kamara in the NFC Championship, they will have a great chance of walking out witha victory.
Featured image by USA Today
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