NFC Championship Pick: Rams vs. Saints Prediction
Los Angeles Rams (14-3 SU, 8-8-1 ATS) vs. New Orleans Saints (14-3 SU, 10-7 ATS)
Date/Time: Sunday, January 20, 3:05 PM EST
Where: Superdome, New Orleans, LA
By: Keith Allen, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: LAR +3½ / NO -3½ (Intertops Sportsbook)
Over/Under Total: 57
New Orleans will be the site for the NFC Championship Game on Sunday when the Rams come to town to take on the home town Saints. This is the game we have all been expecting since early September. Last week the Rams dominated the Cowboys and the Saints dominated the Eagles after a shaky first quarter to set the stage for this heavyweight fight. These teams slugged it out in week 9 with the game tied into the 4th quarter before New Orleans scored the final 10 points to pull out the win. This week the betting sites opened with Saints 3½ point favorites and setting the game total at 57 signifying this will be a game shootout. The play this week is to lay the points and take the Saints. Here is the handicap.
Saints Offense vs. Rams Defense
In week 9 Wade Phillips and the Rams defense had no answer for Drew Brees and Sean Payton’s offense. Brees threw for 346 yards, 4 touchdowns and didn’t throw a pick or get sacked. Michael Thomas was the recipient of 211 of those yards and Brees spread the ball around to 6 other Saint receivers for the other 134 yards. One big difference in this game will be that Aqib Talib will be on the field for Los Angeles. Talib was on I.R. in week 9 with an ankle injury and is back close to 100%. Marcus Peters had the assignment of staying with Thomas in that game, and obviously wasn’t up to the challenge. Thomas is one of the league’s elite receiver, and Talib may do a better job than Peters did, but he can’t guard Mike. Thomas came up big last week against the Eagles with 12 catches for 171 yards and seemed to be the target of every Brees third down pass. Ted Ginn Jr. also missed the earlier game between these 2 teams but suited up last week. He only caught 3 passes for 44 yards, but he stretches the field and gives Brees a deep option, though Brees has struggled throwing the ball down the field.
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The key to this game when the Saints have the ball will be the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Saints bring in the league’s 6th best rushing attack and the Rams defense allowed the league’ most yards per rushing attempt. In week 9 Alvin Kamara rushed for 82 yards and 2 touchdowns and Mark Ingram pitched in 33 yards. The Rams allowed over 100 rushing yards in each of the last 5 regular season games before selling out to stop the run last week against the Cowboys. Dallas only managed 50 yards on the ground on 22 carries. The Rams pass rush was only 15th in the league with 41 sacks on the season and got to Dak Prescott only once last week. Brees was sacked the second fewest times in the league this year and only went down twice last week, though he was pressured often by Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox and Micahel Bennett. As stated above, Brees was not sacked by the Rams in week 9.
The Rams could afford to go all in to stop the run last week and make Prescott win the game for the Cowboys but LA won’t have that option against the Saints. Brees will exploit the Rams secondary if they load the box, and work the screen game to his running backs. LA will have to pick their poison and hope that Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh can live in the Saints backfield. Look for the Saints to clean up their line issues, protect Brees, move the ball and score at least in the high 20s.
Rams Offense vs. Saints Defense
Sean McVay and the Rams opened the season reminding fans of the Greatest Show on Turf teams. They were second in the league in both points scored and yards per play, and led the league in first downs. However, the Rams offense hit a rough patch at the end of year, only scoring 61 points in weeks 13-15 and turning the ball over 9 times in those games before beating up on Arizona and San Francisco in weeks 16 and 17. Though they have the reputation of a high-flying passing team, LA’s success really comes down to their rushing game and then utilizing play action passes. LA was third in the league in rushing yards and yards per attempt and last week Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson combined to rush for 273 yards and 3 touchdowns against a good Dallas run D. The Rams offensive line was struggling in that rough patch but appears to be back on track and Gurley looked to be close to 100% after sitting out 2 weeks to let some injuries heal. LA will go up against the league’s 2nd best rush defense in New Orleans this week that held them to 92 yards in their first contest. Nose Tackle Sheldon Rankins was injured last week which is a big loss for the Saints. Look for New Orleans to prioritize stopping the run and forcing Jared Goff to win the Game for LA.
Goff had an excellent season throwing for 4688 yards and 32 touchdowns and is flourishing in McVay’s system. But Goff has had issues on the road and in big games, especially when being pressured. Since WR Cooper Kupp was lost for the season, Goff’s completion percentage has dipped and he only completed 15 of 28 attempts last week for 186 yards. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are an excellent 1-2 punch at receiver, but nobody has stepped up to replace Kupp. Gurley must again become a big part of the passing game for the Rams to compete in this game. The Saints pass defense is playing at a high level and held the Eagles to only 201 yards last week – most of which came on their first 2 drives. Marshon Lattimore is a true shut down corner and Eli Apple is starting to live up to his first round draft selection. The Saints finished the season 6th in the league in sacks but didn’t take down Nick Foles last week.
I look for the Rams to struggle to run the ball this week. New Orleans will load the box and make Goff pass the ball to put points on the board. LA will certainly be able to score, but I expect the Saints pass rush and cornerbacks to make things difficult for Goff.
Clutch Players and the Red Zone
On a neutral field, this spread would be New Orleans –½ or Pick so these teams are basically even. The difference in the game will be which team – and probably which quarterback - makes the 3 or 4 big plays that define this game. The advantage here goes to the Saints. Brees has a 6-1 home playoff record while Goff will be playing his first road playoff game. The Superdome is one of the loudest venues in all of sports which will impact communication between the Rams signal caller and his team. This will especially impact the Rams in the red zone. The Rams scored touchdowns on only 57% of their trips to the red zone compared to 70% for the Saints. Last week the Rams were 2 for 4 in the red zone and the Saints were 2 for 2. Goff has been shaky on the road this season especially after Kupp was lost to injury. He had 2 chances to lead the Rams to a win in the 4th quarter in New Orleans in November but couldn’t pull it off. There is nothing on his resume to suggest Goff is up to the challenge this week, but Brees has a resume of super bowl champion and countless big game victories.
Play the Saints
New Orleans has the best quarterback, the best defense and the power of the Superdome crowd. They win the game and cover the number. Lay the points and take the Saints.