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NFC Championship Game Preview: Saint Drew’s Déjà vu

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Drew Brees and the Saints find themselves in a great position to get back to the biggest of stages

Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Bears may be out of it but the George S. Halas Trophy is on the line this Sunday in New Orleans. I saw this Saints team in person twice this year, including Part 1 of this Rams – Saints clash down in New Orleans. For this preview, I’d like to go back to early November before we peek ahead to Sunday and explain why I’m cheering for the Saints this weekend.

Sunday, November 4th, 2018 – Los Angeles Rams (7-0) at New Orleans Saints (6-1)

A stiff and steady breeze gave life to the black and gold flags raised by tailgaters and die-hards setting up for the day’s festivities. In the densely urban area of New Orleans, the Superdome sits like a giant golden spaceship dropped in from another planet. Parking near the stadium is at an unsurprising premium. I pulled my rental car into a small pocket lot near a trio of revelers, their tent roped to the ticket booth, portable grill smoking with breakfast sausage. One thing was clear – these guys were pros. After a brief exchange of pleasantries and securing my parking spot for the low, low price of $50 for the day, I realized I had over five hours until kickoff with absolutely no plan. I decided to take a chance and throw in with this group, making the traditional offering of malted barley and hops to the ice-filled altar.

After about an hour of surface-level conversation, I asked the trio just how much Katrina impacted their lives and the city itself. They explained that it’s so important that people refer to time as “before the storm” or “after Katrina” to give context to the conversation. That in the months after, it felt as though other cities were scavenging, making overtures to poach their professional teams. A real sense of fear added to their misery, thinking they’d never see the Saints play in New Orleans again. While the damage to the Superdome was mostly superficial, the team that occupied it on Sundays was in danger of being ripped out when the city needed the respite of football the most. Over the course of the next five hours of pregame, the trio doubled in size as more friends added to the party, each man adding his stories of the Saints’ importance to the city like layers of Cajun spices to the jambalaya.

My first trip to New Orleans covered a lot of ground – literally and figuratively. Running the Mardi Gras Half Marathon with 17,000+ runners in 2011 gave an extensive, if sometimes painful, view of a city still early in the recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I checked off most of the touristy boxes but worked hard to find the best local restaurants and mingle with the people. It’s easy to treat New Orleans like a humid version of Las Vegas, a sin city with oversized cocktails, but the real New Orleans exists outside of Bourbon Street. Each time I have returned to the city, signs of progress showed that this great American city was going to recover, even if it took its time, like the attitude that permeates the residents of The Big Easy. What was made clear to me during this trip was just how important the Saints, and in particular Drew Brees, was to that recovery.

Brees, who just turned 40 this week, was cast aside from the San Diego Chargers with a shoulder injury, looking for a second chance when he entered Free Agency. I’ve always liked Brees – an overachieving Big Ten quarterback that seemed to get discounted because of his size and an ailing shoulder. That he would choose New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane seems like it was something out of a bad Hollywood movie script, but Brees was attracted to being part of the rebuild of the city as much as putting his mark on a franchise known more for fans with paper bags on their heads than for winning seasons. This is rarely mentioned about Brees but should arguably take the lead role in his biography. One of the guys at the tailgate put it best – “to the people here, he’s Saint Drew of New Orleans. He’s a savior.” Brees put the franchise on his back and surged into relevance, setting or challenging every major passing record and winning the Super Bowl in 2009, the last time the Saints held home field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Coming into this game, the Rams were undefeated, running through the league with the kind of offensive output that put defenses on the endangered species list. Spirits were high from both sets of fans. There was a feeling of inevitability that today was only a preview of a bigger game down the road. The Rams fans walking by on their way to the stadium in their Todd Gurley and Jared Goff jerseys were mocked and jeered, but with the aftertaste of a laugh and a smile. Saints fans take their football seriously – but it’s all in serious fun with no hint of venom. This isn’t the passive-aggressive nature of the Midwest I was so accustomed, but more of an aggressive-passive approach that leaves everyone shaking hands instead of shaking fists.

Like all die-hard fans, there was a series of pre-game rituals that needed to be observed. Some had to do with wearing the right jersey or gear that hadn’t been marred by a bad game earlier in the year (no one was wearing duds from the opening week loss to the Bucs, for example). Most of the rituals involved some kind of beverage or, in one case, the game day cigar. Participating in these rituals helped me earn an honorary designation as a member of the crew. As we prepared to enter the Cathedral of Saint Drew, we paused to admire the statue of Steve Gleason’s punt block, commemorating the triumphant return of the Saints to New Orleans after Katrina. I wondered where they will put the one of Brees that will certainly be commissioned.

The pregame pyrotechnics transferred to both offenses, as each side started off red hot:

· Alvin Kamara, 11 yard TD (10 play, 75 yard drive), 7-0 Saints.

· Todd Gurley II, 8 yard TD (6 play, 71 yard drive), 7-7.

· Drew Brees to Alvin Kamara, 16 yard TD (8 play, 63 yard drive), 14-7 Saints.

· Jared Goff to Brandin Cooks, 4 yard TD (6 play, 70 yard drive), 14-14.

Four touchdown drives within the first 16 minutes to kick off the game. Brees was locked-in early and finished the day connecting on 25 of 36 throws for 346 yards and 4 scores. Most of the damage was done by Michael Thomas, who arguably ascended to the top of the mountain to grab the belt for best receiver in the league this season. He caught nearly half of Brees’ completions for a ridiculous 211 yards, including the absolute dagger – a 72 yard beauty down the deep left side of the field.

But here’s where I believe New Orleans and head coach Sean Payton showed why they’re the better team, particularly at home in the Superdome – the Rams tended to score more quickly whereas the Saints were able to control the game by mixing more runs in with their dangerous passing game. The Saints were able to compile 30 designed runs to only 15 for the Rams. That helped lead to a 6 minute advantage in time of possession, which kept the Saints defense just that much fresher. As evidenced by that amazing drive in the 3rd quarter against the Eagles in the divisional round, the Saints are a team built to overcome adversity and sustain long drives when the pressure is at its greatest. The Saints held on to finish off the Rams by a convincing 45-35 final score and helped the Saints earn home field advantage in the playoffs.

Rams (14-3) vs. Saints (14-3) – Championship Game Preview / Prediction:

Rams Head Coach Sean McVay showed in the Divisional win against the Cowboys last week a willingness to put team ahead of pure offensive production. By leaning on the running game against Dallas and piling up over 40 designed runs, McVay allowed his defense to play situational football with fresh bodies. The Rams won the time of possession battle against Dallas by 13 minutes. With Defensive Tackle Sheldon Rankins out with an Achilles injury for New Orleans, it will be interesting to see if McVay can stay patient with a similar approach against the Saints or revert to pass-happy mode. He abandoned the run early in the first meeting between these two squads but he may have to stick with Gurley and the resurgent corpulence of CJ Anderson if the Rams are to pull off the upset. If McVay puts the ball solely in Jared Goff’s hands, it will be interesting to see if the Saints can avoid giving away free yardage as their defensive backs have been particularly handsy all season. Eli Apple owns 6 pass interference penalties on the year while the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore has 3. Teams playing the Saints are constantly forced to throw more than they want to so it’s unsurprising New Orleans is among the league leaders in defensive pass interference penalties, but everything is magnified in the playoffs.

If McVay takes a steady hand to his offensive juggernaut like Sean Payton does with his, we may have an instant classic on our hands. The Saints defense has started to get its groove back (6th in weighted defensive DVOA) and while the same cannot be said for the Rams, there is enough star power in blue and yellow to make a difference in big games like this. Saints Left Guard Andrus Peat struggled against the Cowboys and will find little solace in playing against Aaron Donald and Suh. As tempting as it is to predict another track meet between these teams, I think it more likely that it will take longer, sustained drives from both squads to score as the defenses are playing better football than they were in early November.

Oftentimes, games like this come down to who has the better coach and quarterback. Despite Brees hitting 40 this week, it’s clear that he has had the superior season to Goff, who has cooled down significantly since the Bears broke him in Week 14. The loss of Cooper Kupp was bigger than anyone could have imagined, so they’ll need to rely on running the offense through Gurley in a big spot. If Goff is pressed into throwing 35+ times, McVay will likely try to keep him from throwing at Lattimore, easily the most talented member of the Saints secondary. On the other side, Marcus Peters or Aqib Talib will need to make a splash play for the Rams to gain an extra possession but the Brees to Thomas connection this season has been nothing short of masterful. The Rams had no answer for Kamara in the first game either and it may come down to his playmaking ability again for the Saints to convert scoring drives. One thing to note about Brees is his arm strength. Brees underthrew Ted Ginn Jr. on the opening interception last week against the Eagles and he couldn’t find a wide open Taysom Hill later in the game. In fact, Brees has not been particularly accurate on deep balls this year, hitting only 7 passes over 30 yards. His arm has not had the overall strength we’re used to seeing from him and Taysom Hill has actually been called on a couple of times to fire a deep ball. The Rams corners are known gamblers and may take a chance if they no longer fear getting beat over the top.

As for the better coach, it’s hard to argue with Payton at this point who has been in this situation before and has a more complete handling of his offensive system. Both coaches are among the most talented play callers in the league and I’d expect plenty of adjustments, counters, and feints to be called on either side. The x-factor in this match up though is the Superdome and the fans that make it a truly remarkable atmosphere. Home field advantage may not be real for all 32 NFL franchises, but it is without a doubt a real advantage in New Orleans. The last time New Orleans hosted the NFC Championship game, Drew Brees broke through to the upper echelon of passers by securing his first Super Bowl appearance and eventual victory. Now, Brees is near the end of his illustrious career with a chance to go out the ultimate winner. He’s been here before, he’s beat this team before. The stage is set for the storybook ending. I’m not about to doubt him now.

Prediction: Saints 31, Rams 27

Find me on Twitter @gridironborn