LA Rams @ New Orleans Saints
Start-time: Sunday, 20:05
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Superdome is the key to making Saints instead of sinners
Much like Ben-Hur in the Coliseum, there are no brakes on the chariot that Drew Brees drives around his homefield Superdome. The hall-of-fame quarterback and his multiple receiving outlets routinely go careening through the collapsing scenery of rival defenses with reckless abandon. Indeed, it was a similar story when the LA Rams last visited this self-styled New Orleans Thunderdome in Week Nine, when the Saints ran out comfortable 45-35 winners - and Brees threw for a fag paper shy of 350 yards and four touchdowns.
Enough said? Why should we expect anything different in this Conference Championship game for the NFC? Sure, the Rams also sport an elite-yet-embryonic quarterback and an emerging one-two punch rushing tandem in Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson, arguably the freshest running man in the league at a time when miles and injuries are beginning the slow most athletes over the campaign's long course. That said, the Saints offer their own thunder-and-lightning knockout combo in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram who can both run teams ragged, and throw in some pivotal pouching as understudy receivers, too. Everywhere you look on offense, especially at home, Sean Payton has the resources to see Sean McVay and then raise him.
Kamara could again prove the game-changer tonight. Back in early November, this 23-year-old racked up 116 yards from scrimmage on 23 touches and scored three first-half touchdowns, as New Orleans raced to a 35-17 lead before the break. Expect him to bear the burden of expectation and effort here, with his twin-threat duties as both a versatile catcher and an elusive tackle-breaker setting him apart. And speaking of masters of illusion, let's not forget third-string-QB-turned-utility-wildcard, Taysom Hill, who keeps any opposing defense guessing with his myriad roles at quarterback, running back, tight end, H-back and receiver. He has more range than Robert Downey Jnr.
Elsewhere, be mindful of a rejuvenated Ted Ginn who's desperate to reconnect with the long arm of Brees' law for those deep downfield strikes that could kill off LA's potentially porous secondary (cornerback Marcus Peters has been warned and will be targeted again). After a persistent knee injury kept him out for 11 weeks, Ginn has rediscovered his bearings and is set for a third Super Bowl appearance. His recovery should also take the pressure off Tre'Quan Smith, another wideout with explosive speed.
Statistically speaking, despite dropping off their blistering pace in recent weeks, New Orleans has gone 12-3 against the spread (ATS) since the beginning of the 2016 season when tackling an opponent that's averaging at least 24 points per game, as the Rams are. So, while Brees definitely got lucky against Philly in the Disisional Round, I would hope that that winning-ugly experience will shock this marshal and his troops into action here.
Erratic Ds need to shore up their defensive walls
As ever, though, defense and takeaways could yet determine how and where this battle is won. And the Rams' D have already accounted for 18 picks this season, putting them third in the NFL. While that's an impressive total, I'm always slight skeptical about any team's sudden proficiency in this arena... is it good coaching from Wade Phillips, or some aggregated slices of luck? Experience tells me it's the latter, and Rams fans should instead take heart from the palpable resurgence of Ndamukong Suh at nose tackle, a one-man bulwark who really can stuff rival running lanes.
Of more concern to a successful hometown defense should be the Saint's own defense. After all, it's no great shakes. That said, their corners can bring the heat and press coverage, making it tougher for Jared Goff to hit his marks through closing pockets and narrowing windows. In 2017, only a handful of teams blitzed more than the Saints (often the last playbook refuge of a desperado) so Goff will have his chances if he can stand his ground. Nevertheless, despite their breakout performance last weekend (where Gurley and Anderson combined for 238 yards and three touchdowns), it's difficult to forget how ineffectual the Rams were on the ground here last time (a paltry 92 yards). Furthermore, New Orleans finished the regular season with the second-best rushing defense, allowing just 3.6 yards per carry. Therefore, I feel if LA are to prevail, counter to the received wisdom of this week's pundits, they'll have to do it through the air.
Which neatly brings us back to playing in front of this raucous packed house, which could serve Goff's head up on a primetime platter to New Orleans. For all his considerable talents, Goff's personal play-clock can still get scrambled on the road, and any panic or penalties should prove the difference. In this Thunderdome, better to leave it to the Brees and some high-powered rushing.
Remember, the Saints have won 15 of their last 16 home games, including playoffs, if you discount a meaningless 2018 season finale in which Brees and several other key personnel were rested with homefield advantage already secured. Fifteen out of 16? Enough said.