Brees vs. Goff.
Payton vs. McVay.
Kamara vs. Gurley.
Michael Thomas vs. Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp.
Cameron Jordan vs. Aaron Donald
(Two of the best Offensive Lines in the NFL –- but that may only interest me).
The Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints was everything that the modern NFL wanted — glitz, glamour, high-profile players, and points. The poor Chain Crew was running a marathon and I still feel bad for the Scoreboard and Camera Operators having to keep up. The match-up produced 80 points, 54 first downs, and 970 total yards between the two NFC Contenders in what will go down as one of the most pivotal games of the 2018 Season.
The Saints offense accepted the challenge of taking the ball first. Similar to what they’ve shown in previous weeks, Taysom Hill was used to convert a crucial short yardage fourth down, Alvin Kamara got five touches in an assortment of ways for 27 total yards, and Michael Thomas converted two first downs. To cap off the drive, the pulling prowess of Saints Left Tackle Terron Armstead was on full display, leading the way for Alvin Kamara’s first touchdown (*Spoiler he often scores more*) to take a 7-0 lead in a game where touchdowns were going to be three times more frequent than punts.
Todd Gurley provided the perfect rebuttal to Alvin Kamara however, receiving 4 touches for 29 yards including an 8-yard touchdown run. The drive got a customary Rams huge chunk play when Tyler Higbee pulled in a seed from Jared Goff, tossed Von Bell into the scrap heap, and rambled his way for 33 yards. Halfway through the 1st Quarter each team capitalized on their opening possession to make it 7-7. The Rams scored in half the time it took the Saints to score, a stat that can be interpreted a number of ways, but in an early tie ball game it helps the Saints immensely that their defense was on the field for a shorter time than the Rams defense.
The Saints second drive was aided by a defensive pass interference by Marcus Peters and a neutral zone infraction by Ndamukong Suh, two Rams’ prized free agents who haven’t been lauded in the past for their discipline. Drew Brees took full advantage of the Rams mistakes and threw strikes to his secondary targets – 19 yards to Tre’Quan Smith, 17 yards to Benjamin Watson, and a 6 yard pass to Josh Hill (a player whose run blocking was on display this game). That’s the beauty of the Saints offense; second tier players will always be given opportunities to contribute. The drive concluded on 3rd and 8 from the Rams 16 when Drew Brees found Alvin Kamara on a quick out, who waltzed into the end zone to take the lead 14-7. Kamara’s ability to glide down the field and always maintain his balance, as is if the laws of gravity don’t affect him, is an uncanny running style that makes the Saints offense hum.
The Rams apparently weren’t fans of falling behind early as they made quick work of the required 75 yard pilgrimage to the holy land known as the end zone. Starting with a 12-yard shot to Robert Woods and chunking down the field with a 48-yard bomb from Goff to Brandin Cooks, the Rams were picking on former Ohio State Buckeyes Eli Apple (who also had a defensive holding penalty) and Vonn Bell. Jared Goff made it a 14-14 ball game with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks, that’s 28 points in only 16 minutes of the game.
Bathroom break stress was at an all-time high for viewership. The script for this non-stop scoring fest called for a turnover and this came in the form of a Mark Ingram fumble on first down of the Saints third possession. Samson Ekuban poked his helmet onto the ball and Aaron Donald jumped on it at the New Orleans 22. The Rams however came up short and would have to settle for the field. OR so we thought. The Rams Jack-Of-All Trades Special Teams Ace Johnny Hecker took the snap from the long snapper and immediately B-lined to the right where he was brought down by Craig Robertson near the first down. The New Orleans faithful roared as the officials review ruled that Hekker had come up short on the fake field goal.
With the Rams unable to capitalize on the turnover the Saints took back over in the tied ball game with 13:00 remaining in the 2nd Quarter at their own 13-yard line. The Saints got the ball moving with back-to-back completions to Michael Thomas resulting in two first downs. Benjamin Watson held on tight to a highly contested jump ball near the right sideline over Corey Littleton for a 32-yard completion to get to the Rams 16. Mark Ingram brought the Saints near the goal line and a Brees to Tre’Quan Smith slant gave the Saints their third one-touchdown lead of the game, 21-14.
Jared Goff would get the Rams past midfield on their fourth possession with a completion to Robert Woods for 13 yards and a beautiful 26-yard throw to Cooper Kupp near the right sideline that was delivered before Kupp even made his cut to create separation on Eli Apple. The Rams drive fizzled out and Greg Zuerlein missed the 50-yard field goal. For the Rams be on the road in front of a rowdy crowd like New Orleans and have your field goal unit come up short on consecutive opportunities could cost you the game.
The Saints got the ball with a seven-point lead and had a sense of urgency to keep building the lead and burring the only undefeated team left in the league. Four touches by the trio of Thomas, Kamara, and Ingram, the Saints recipe for success, got the team 46 yards down the field to the Rams 13-yard line, before a perfectly lead lob got Benjamin Watson into the End Zone for the Saints 28-14 lead. ZACH LINE WHAM BLOCK.
With the game slowly getting out of hand the Rams needed to stop the Saints momentum and cut the two touchdown deficit. Instead of cutting down the deficit, on first down Jared Goff forced a ball over the middle that was intercepted by second-year linebacker Alex Anzalone. The Saints needed a little over thirty seconds to get the ball in the end zone (again). After a Michael Thomas 9-yard gain which ended in an Aaron Donald unnecessary roughness penalty. Alvin Kamara capped off the drive with a one yard rush up the middle to make it 35-14. With that touchdown run, Kamara joined Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown as one of only two players 23 or younger with 3+ TDs in 3 games in a single NFL Season… Reminder it’s only Week 9
The scrambling Rams were able to miraculously matriculate down the field for three points with chain moving completions to Gerald Everett (two for 35 yards) and Robert Woods, despite a boneheaded unnecessary roughness penalty by the Rams Veteran Guard Roger Saffold. The score was 35-17 Saints at halftime thanks to Greg Zuerlein’s 56-yard field goal. Both teams are highly successful in part due to their offensively innovative Head Coaches, as well as their Pro Bowl Quarterbacks, but the straw that stirs the drink is their running backs. At halftime, the productivity of those straws told everything you needed to know about the score, Kamara had 84 yards and 3 TDs while Todd Gurley had 9 touches for 34 yards.
The Rams, with a chance for 10 unanswered points, started their second half drive with a quick strike and run by Brandin Cooks for 15 yards, then an 11-yard pass to Robert Woods, and another strike to Woods over the middle on play action for their third first down of the drive. Gerald Everett made a huge third down conversion to get the Rams the ball at the Saints 20 and back-up running back Malcolm Brown was able tight rope down the sideline and score the touchdown to make it 35-24.
The Saints on their first possession of the 2nd half ended up punting from their own 44., making it the third drive of the game where Brees found Michael Thomas for two completions for first downs.
After the Rams added another field goal, for 13unanswered points, and to cut the deficit to 35-24 heading into the 4th Quarter. The Saints only had 3 first downs in the 3rd Quarter after compiling 16 in the 1st Half. With the Saints clinging on for dear life, Aaron Donald for the second time of the afternoon had a hand on Drew Brees and Brees was able to elude the complete a pass. After a Michael Thomas third down conversion, Donald this time hits Drew Bress as he’s throwing on third down and the ball balls squirts out for a short incompletion. Aaron Donald would record all four of the Rams QB hits in the game, while the Saints mustered five QB hits as a team. Less than 10 QB hits for both teams and 0 combined sacks tells you how impressive both offensive lines played this game (and have been all season).
With the Saints forced to punt again in the 2nd Half, Goff took over and started by gunning it left to Cooks up to the 50 for the 15-yard gain. Cooks passed the 100 yard receiving mark for the game on the play. Third and one play action fake to Todd Gurley from the Saints 41 and Goff is able to get the pass off quickly to Cooper Kupp who is able to catch and run down the left sideline after he loses Eli Apple in man coverage off of the Robert Woods rub route. Gerald Everett extends for the goal line on the quick TE Screen and gets the 2-Point Conversion to make it a 35-35 tie ball game with 9:48 remaining.
Alvin Kamara gave the Saints the spark they needed and rushed for 17 yards falling forward on the attempted hurdle of LaMarcus Joyner. The following play the Saints ran out of shotgun play action and Drew Brees had all day to find Michael Thomas over the middle for 18 yards. The Saints drive stalled and Will Lutz drilled the clutch 54-yrd field goal.
In what seemed like a never ending fourth quarter, trailing 38-35, the Rams got the ball back with 6:23 left in the game, and were unable to get the first down. The 4th Quarter, three-and-out drive, on the road, would cost the Rams the game.
In one of the defining moments of the season, with a mere 3-point lead against the last remaining undefeated team in the League, the Saints went for the juggler. Drew Brees completed a pass deep left to Michael Thomas who bullied past Marcus Peters and trotted his way into the end zone. Michael Thomas gave an ode to the iconic Joe Horn flip-phone celebration of 2003 with his game sealing Touchdown.
Interestingly enough, the Saints move to 15-3 when Alvin Kamara has 13 touches or more while the Rams fall to 3-6 when Todd Gurley has 19 touches or less (16-0 with 20+ touches). The Saints were able to jump on the gas pedal early and dictate their brand of football. Now they’re in the driver’s seat, with a bumpier road ahead than the Rams, for Home Field Advantage in the NFC Playoffs. Two of the most exciting, innovative, and consistent teams in the league over the last 24 games provided one of the best displays of football we’ve seen all year.