The race for supremacy in the NFC is on. Just when it looked like the Rams were the class of the conference, the Saints came marching on in to spoil their Hollywood season. Just when it looked like the Rams were in control of the NFC side of the playoff picture, the Saints indicated that they’re ready to seize the throne.
On Sunday, the Saints ended the Rams’ unbeaten season with a 45-35 win, improved their own record to 7-1, maintained their slim lead over the Panthers in the NFC South, and earned what could be a key head-to-head tiebreaker in the battle for the top seed in the conference. To get to that point, the Saints went punch for punch with the now 8-1 Rams, absorbed every blow that came their way, and made the plays that mattered in crunch time.
The game lived up to the hype as two explosive, mostly unstoppable offenses took turns doing what they do best. They combined for 970 yards of offense with almost exactly equal distribution (four yards separated the two teams) and three punts. In the end — after the teams exchanged scores in the early going, after the Saints pulled ahead with 21 unanswered in the second quarter, after the Rams scored 21 unanswered to tie the game in the second half — the game was won by Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, who hooked up for a 72-yard touchdown that severed the Rams’ heads and hopes.
The beginning was all about answering each other score for score. The Saints started with a 10-play 75-yard drive that ended with a Alvin Kamara touchdown. The Rams responded with a six-play, 71-yard drive that ended with a Todd Gurley touchdown. The Saints answered back with another 75-yard scoring drive, but this one required only eight plays. Once again, it was Kamara for the touchdown. The Rams proceeded to score a touchdown of their own, this one via Jared Goff and Brandin Cooks.
So to review, the first four drives all went for touchdowns. The game began as expected.
The game started to swing in the second quarter. First, the Rams passed on a field goal in lieu of a fake that didn’t pick up a first down. Later in the quarter, after the Saints took a 21-14 lead, Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein pushed a 51-yard field goal wide, which gave the Saints great field position and a chance to extend their lead to two scores before halftime. Sure enough, they scored another touchdown with just over a minute to play in the half. The Rams needed to answer before halftime. Instead, Goff threw a pick to Alex Anzalone. The Saints turned that turnover into seven more points. And that’s how they carried a three-score lead into halftime.
It’s not that the Rams played poorly on offense in the first half. At halftime, the Rams were actually averaging more yards per play (9.0 compared to 7.6) than the Saints. They just made a few critical mistakes in quick succession and the Saints capitalized on all of them — the way great teams are supposed to.
But the Rams came back — the way great teams are supposed to. After salvaging a field goal at the end of the first half, they scored a touchdown to start the third quarter and — wait for it — forced their first punt of the game on the Saints’ opening series of the third quarter before kicking another field goal. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Saints only led by eight. The Rams then tied the game in the fourth quarter after forcing another stop and then embarking upon a six-play, 83-yard drive that netted eight points.
So to review, the game was tied with 10 minutes to go after both teams went on separate 21-point runs.
After reaching an equilibrium, the Saints took over down the stretch. First, Wil Lutz drilled a 54-yard field goal to take a 38-35 lead. And then, after forcing a rare three-and-out, the Saints iced the game with that Brees-Thomas touchdown.
As a result, the Saints might just be the new favorites in the NFC. The two teams are so similarly stacked that the edge might have to be given to the team who gets to stay at home come January. On Sunday, the Saints pulled ahead in that race, but only just barely.
Plus, the Saints have Drew Brees.
Brees bolsters MVP case
The Saints didn’t just establish themselves as the team to beat in the NFC. Brees also emerged as the most viable MVP candidate not named Patrick Mahomes.
Brees, once again, was magnificent. In all, he completed 25 of 36 passes for 346 yards (9.6 yards per attempt), four touchdowns, no picks, and a 137.0 passer rating. He also rushed for 16 yards on four carries, looking nothing like a 39-year-old, 18-year veteran.
Even if the Saints had lost this game, they might’ve held the edge in a potential rematch because they have the better of the two quarterbacks. That’s not a knock on Goff, who played brilliantly in a narrow defeat. It’s just that Goff isn’t Brees, who remains the most accurate quarterback of all time even though he’s chucking deep downfield passes.
After eight games, Brees is completing 76 percent of his passes. He’s also on pace to throw for 4,672 yards, 36 touchdowns, and two interceptions. If not for Mahomes’ incredible ascent, Brees would be the frontrunner for MVP — an award he’s somehow never captured in his Hall of Fame career. For now, he’ll have to settle for second place, but with half a season to play, there’s plenty of time for Brees to unseat Mahomes atop the leaderboard.
It helps when your 37-year-old tight end is making helmet catches deep downfield.
Benjamin Watson, who will turn 38 next month, exploded for 62 yards and a touchdown against the Rams. And he did it in style. Check out this catch, which set up a score.
And then there was his 13-yard touchdown late in the first half.
The combined age on that touchdown? 76.
Goff brilliant outside of one mistake
Goff continues to amaze midway through his third season. He made one costly mistake in the first half, but otherwise played another brilliant game. He finished 28 of 40 for 391 yards (9.8 yards per attempt), three touchdowns, one pick, and a 115.7 passer rating.
But about that interception — it proved to be costly. Late in the second quarter, with the Rams trailing by 14 points, Goff gave the Saints a chance to take a 21-point lead with his sixth interception of the season.
Besides that mistake, Goff was nearly perfect. He fed both Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, who combined for 11 receptions and 185 yards.
Most impressively, when the Rams trailed by 21 points, he brought them back.
Immediately after he got picked late in the first half, he responded by leading them into field-goal range on the brink of halftime. In the fourth quarter, when the Rams trailed by eight, he engineered an eight-point scoring drive by hitting Cooper Kupp for a 41-yard touchdown and Gerald Everett for the two-point conversion.
*Marcus Peters voice*
“COOPER KUPP! COOPER KUPP!” pic.twitter.com/S0i30rA5UO
[email protected] ties it up! #LAvsNOpic.twitter.com/hXKd6nBtIi
Despite Sunday’s loss, the Rams don’t need to worry about their quarterback or their offense.
Kamara out-produces Gurley
Entering the game, Kamara and Gurley had combined for 24 touchdowns from scrimmage. By the end of the game, that total grew to 28. Both explosive running backs did most of their damage in the first half.
Kamara scored a first-half hat-trick.
Alvin Kamara is a baddddd man.
The Saints get on the board first! #LARvsNOpic.twitter.com/wW2o4FBU8C
Another one for @A_kamara6!!
?: FOX #GoSaints#SaluteToServicepic.twitter.com/TuwnvUWVka
Yep. @A_kamara6 has a first half HAT TRICK!
?: FOX #GoSaints#SaluteToServicepic.twitter.com/bl6yA09TYo
He also pulled off this hurdle after the break:
Kamara finished with 116 yards and three touchdowns on 23 touches.
Gurley, meanwhile, experienced a down game by his standards in large part because the Rams were forced to climb their way out of a 21-point hole. Still, he totaled 79 yards and a touchdown on 19 touches.
Put together, arguably the two best running backs in football went for 195 yards and four touchdowns. But if you’re looking for a winner in the fight, it’s Kamara, who had the added benefit of playing for the team that led for most of the game. The Rams never held a lead.
Michael Thomas, top-five receiver
Thomas is one of the game’s best receivers, so it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that he racked up 211 yards on 12 receptions against a susceptible Rams secondary. What might come as a surprise is to see how he celebrated his game-clinching touchdown.
You can’t say he was unprepared.
Unsurprisingly, Thomas’ celebration earned a 15-yard penalty. Given the game was pretty much over, it didn’t matter.
Plus, it was cool.
Rams’ fake fails after controversial spot
The Rams forced the game’s first stop when they generated a turnover in the second quarter, but they failed to turn the takeaway into points, passing up a short field goal for a fake that came up just short of the line to gain. The Rams challenged the spot, but the booth didn’t see enough to overturn the call.
You be the judge:
It looked like Johnny Hekker picked up the necessary yardage with that final extension, but given he was marked short initially, it wasn’t that surprising to see the booth keep the call as is. Spot challenges are always hard to win.
The decision to go for the fake proved to be costly. The Saints ended up scoring a touchdown to jump-start their 21-0 run in the second quarter.
With the hardest game of their season over with, the Saints turn their attention to a difficult, but more manageable stretch of games. Over the next three weeks, they’ll face the Bengals, Eagles, and Falcons. It’s worth noting that two of their final three games will come against the 6-2 Panthers. Those games could determine the fate of the division.
As for Rams, they’ll get the Seahawks and Chiefs before their Week 12 bye. That game against the Chiefs, which will be held in Mexico City, might just be a preview of the Super Bowl.
You can relive the game with our live blog below.
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