The Rams (14-3) and Saints (14-3) will square off in the first of two rematches on Championship Sunday.
The Saints beat the Rams 45-35 in Week 9 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, after head coach Sean McVay’s group couldn’t cap a 21-point comeback with a win. Now, the two teams meet after almost an entire season at the top of the conference with a trip to Super Bowl LIII on the line.
The Rams began the week with a lot of talk surrounding how Week 9’s game ended. Wide receiver Michael Thomas led the league in the receptions in 2018 and torched the Rams for a career-high 211 yards receiving in the midseason meeting, including a game-sealing, 72-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.
"He's got a Hall of Fame quarterback,” cornerback Aqib Talib said, when asked about what makes Thomas tough. “Anytime you’re a receiver and you got a Hall of Fame quarterback, that's going to take you to the next level, man. Then he's big, he's fast, he's got great hands, great body control."
Talib, who missed the Saints game in early November on injured reserve, seemed more focused on what Brees brings to the table on Thursday — on the same page as his defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
“He’s a tremendous quarterback,” Phillips said. “He knows what you’re in most of the time, so you got to be able to play whatever your technique is and play it really well when he does know what you’re in.”
In his 18th professional season, the 40-year-old signal-caller can not only read a defense, but he can also tack up yards and win games. Brees led the league completing 74.4 percent of his passes in his record-breaking season. No. 9 averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and led the league with seven game-winning drives for the Saints.
"Anytime you play against a great quarterback like that, he’s going to do things a normal quarterback ain’t going to do,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “So, we know what to expect.”
Knowing what to expect and executing could be the difference between Donald beginning prep for a trip to the Pro Bowl next Sunday, or a flight to Atlanta. After seeing preparation show up on game day in the Divisional round against the Cowboys — specifically to stop leading running back Ezekiel Elliott — Donald was quick to mention what has to happen in order to be in position to sack Brees on the big-time stage.
“[W]e got to stop the run first before we think about rushing the passer,” Donald continued. “They got two great backs we got to slow down and try to find ways to stop.”
Kamara and running back Mark Ingram combined for 115 yards rushing, with two touchdowns from Kamara in Week 9. Much like the Rams’ newest running back duo, Kamara and Ingram bring different styles to the NFC title game.
The Rams defense, which struggled against the run all season, can improve its chances of moving on to the big game if Kamara and Ingram’s spark is stamped out. The Cowboys ran the ball for just 50 yards in the Coliseum last week, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh joins his defensive line all-star in focusing in what the pair of Saints rushers offer.
“Kamara primarily goes outside, even though he primarily runs between the tackles,” Suh said. “Watching the Philly game on Sunday, he pressed the ‘C’ gap really hard and got some big plays. Ingram's a tough runner, so he comes downhill full steam. But they put him in space as well and he makes plays. So, two elite guys that we have to respect and know where they are at at all times."
Suh is coming off one of his best games of the season against the Cowboys. In his first-career playoff win, Suh tallied four tackles, one for a loss, and two quarterback hits — earning recognition from his head coach.
“I believe I'm my hardest critic,” Suh said. “So Sean may of seen it as one of my best games, but I got a lot more in the tank."
But is Suh as fresh as one half of L.A.’s own running back combo entering the weekend?
"I'm the freshest running back in the league,” running back C.J. Anderson said with a laugh on Thursday. “I've played over 1,000 snaps or 600, 700 snaps in this league and when you get to this point in the season, you start to lay back. I'm out there flying around on practice, just being a kid having fun.”
Anderson has taken 132 offensive snaps as a Ram — 34 of them spelling running back Todd Gurley against the Cowboys — and enters the Superdome with childlike energy.
McVay’s offense made its money behind Anderson and Gurley in the Divisional round, picking up a combined 238 yards rushing and three touchdowns from them against one of the league’s best run defenses. The backs became the first pair of Rams rushers to each record at least 100 yards rushing in a playoff game in franchise history, leading some to wonder how it works out so well.
"I think we respect each other's games,” Anderson said. “We respect each other as players — what I've done in this league and what he's done in this league and what he has accomplished and what [I] have.”
Anderson said his offense must find a way to run the ball in New Orleans, adding that quarterback Jared Goff’s unit must play well on first down, avoid third-and-long scenarios, and stay ahead of the sticks.
For Gurley, keys to beating the Saints’ No. 2 run defense in 2018 includes bringing a physical attack to guys like linebacker A.J. Klein, cornerback P.J. Williams, and defensive end Cameron Jordan, while taking care of the football.
“It doesn't matter to me if I'm in there,” Gurley said. “Whoever's in there ballin’, they're in there ballin’.”
The Saints have been best against the run this season — though the defensive front will be without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who tore his achilles against the Eagles. But quarterback Jared Goff has reason to keep an eye out for cornerback Marshon Lattimore, joining Williams lurking downfield. The 2017 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, Lattimore has been productive in his sophomore season and came up with a pair of picks in the Divisional round.
The Saints defense has generated 18 takeaways since Week 9 — a stark comparison to just eight entering the first meeting.
But Goff’s gone without a pick since Week 15, and that’s when the quarterback said things began to trend upward, wrapping up a three-game run against the Lions, Bears, and Eagles — hitting on 55 percent of passes for just one touchdown and six interceptions.
“Yeah, feel good in those last four since those,” Goff said, including the Eagles loss. “There were various reasons why we weren't doing well offensively and why I wasn't my sharpest. I feel like we fixed those four weeks ago and I feel pretty good now."
Goff threw five touchdowns in L.A.’s two remaining divisional games and supported the rushing attack against the Cowboys with a turnover-free outing — kept squeaky clean by his offensive line. Now a second-career playoff win from the Super Bowl, Goff can’t help but think about what it would be like.
“It's always something you dream about growing up is being able to play in the Super Bowl,” Goff said. “Even playing in the NFC Championship is a dream come true. We're excited for it. It's an opportunity you work for and I think we see it as something that we've earned.”
But the Saints aren’t the only force draped in black and gold standing in Goff and company’s way of football’s greatest stage. Going against 11 could be more like going against 74,000 in the Superdome on Sunday and the Rams know it — starting with offensive line coach and run game coordinator Aaron Kromer, who spent five seasons in New Orleans.
“[T]hat was the loudest I've heard it,” Kromer said, describing the Superdome the last time it hosted an NFC Championship game, against the Vikings in 2009.
A few Rams were relatively ho, hum about the noise, while others like former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Marcus Peters credited New Orleans’ passionate fanbase.
But the wise owl of the offensive line, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who’s played in more NFL stadiums than several of his teammates have played in games, said it’s just another form of adversity his club will face en route to its ultimate goal.
“We know it's an advantage for them, but it gives us the opportunity to have just a little edge, more of understanding, 'Hey, you know what? How big execution’s going to be this week,'" Whitworth said.
Whitworth took the podium this week and was outspoken about what his team has gone through in his 13th NFL season. He filed through memories of the winning streak, Southern California fires, the tragic shooting in Thousand Oaks, the late bye week, and first losing streak under McVay. A week after earning his own first-career playoff win at age 37, the lineman said his team is ready.
“So, we feel like we're battle-tested. Honestly, we feel like we've been through it,” Whitworth said. “There's really not much adversity we haven't seen all year long, whether it's travel stuff or anything. So, I think we kind of feel like we were born for this moment and this opportunity.”
Kickoff between the Rams and Saints for the NFC title is scheduled for noon on Sunday.
In case you missed it from NFC Championship week: