NFC Championship Game preview: Rams-Saints

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The Backstory


The last time these two teams met, no one could find a blemish on the pageant-winning Rams.

Sean McVay was the brightest young mind in pro sports. The Rams had an MVP candidate at running back and Jared Goff was blossoming into a franchise quarterback. Los Angeles' multi-level offensive attack couldn't be stopped, it could only hopefully be contained.

Then the Saints stood up and announced their place among the NFC's elite. New Orleans' 45-35 Week 9 win over Los Angeles, punctuated by Michael Thomas' Joe Horn-inspired cell phone touchdown celebration, moved them into position to receive the sash and crown.

Both teams experienced late-season lulls that concerned some, enough to even leave the Rams on the losing end of some Divisional Round picks.

That didn't happen, though. The Rams protected their house in defeating the Cowboys, and instead, we get a Week 9 rematch back where the madness happened: The Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Drew Brees' quick-release passing attack meets a Rams defense that will have Aqib Talib for this go-around. The Goffense, fresh off a massive rushing day, returns with a new face: running back C.J. Anderson, who has rushed for an eye-popping 422 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries in just three games with the Rams. Los Angeles' newfound two-headed attack adds another layer to this matchup, but it also runs into the league's No. 2 rushing defense in New Orleans, which allowed just 80.2 rush yards per game in the regular season.

Will the Saints claim the NFC crown and return to the game's biggest stage for the first time since the 2009 season? Or is it the Rams' time to complete their triumphant return to Los Angeles with a conference title?

Under pressure


Andrus Peat: One-fifth of one of the league's best offensive lines, Peat had a very forgettable day against the Eagles last week. He was flagged four times (two false starts, two holds) and struggled to handle Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox, who was in and out of the game due to injury. It was later revealed Peat is playing with a surgically repaired hand after he broke it late in the season, and was playing through a great deal of pain in the win. Normally reliable, he simply wasn't, and he gets an even greater challenge this week in the form of Aaron Donald. Donald leads the NFL in three pass-rushing categories: pressures (74), sacks (20.5) and sack percentage (3.7), per Next Gen Stats. He's third in the NFL in pressure percentage at 13.5 percent. This, coming from an interior defensive lineman who will spend near 50 percent or more of his defensive snaps against Peat. Brees' difference in performance when pressured as opposed to free of pressure is drastic (the third-greatest in the NFL): Brees' passer rating is worse by negative-66.7 when pressured. New Orleans' offense, which features an average time to throw from Brees of 2.59 seconds, is designed to be able to avoid this factor. But that will never be achieved at a 100 percent rate, meaning there will be opportunities for Donald to cause problems, and if Peat is playing at less than 100 percent, Donald's margin of possibility will be greater. Even against a healthy Peat (and solid right guard Larry Warford), Donald still registered four pressures, though he went without a sack. Hear that? That's the sound of thousands of Rams fans' hands rubbing together when considering the possibility of a big day from Donald. It's on Peat to prevent it from happening.

Marcus Peters: The cornerback, who has spent a good portion of his first season with the Rams being used in a manner that some see as, um, unproductive, was torched by the Saints in their first meeting, allowing seven receptions on nine targets for 146 yards, six first downs and the aforementioned Thomas touchdown that iced it for the Saints. He probably saw plenty of the highlight we all viewed on a loop: Thomas sprinting past him to catch a Brees pass and race to the end zone before lifting the goal post pad to retrieve a planted flip phone for his celebration. Afterward, a heated Peters sent a message to Saints coach Sean Payton: "Tell Sean Payton, keep talking that s---, we gonna see him soon. You feel me? Yeah," Peters said after the loss. "Cause I like what he was saying on the sideline too. Tell him he can keep talking that s---. And I hope he sees me soon. You feel me? Then we're gonna have a good little, nice little bowl of gumbo together." Peters has since downplayed his words, but he got his wish: The Rams are back to see the Saints again. Can he put together a better performance against a corps led by Thomas, who is coming off a 12-catch, 171-yard, one-touchdown Divisional Round performance?

Matchup to watch


Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson vs. Saints' defense: We covered this a bit in the backstory, but it's especially crucial because it has suddenly become a huge part of Los Angeles' offense, which has significantly aided Sean McVay's ability to call a masterful game with excellent pacing. Since the addition of Anderson, Los Angeles has shifted from an 11 personnel-heavy approach to one that uses two tight end sets at a much higher rate. Since Week 16, Los Angeles has used 12 personnel on 28.5 percent of plays, an increase of 27.3 percentage points. They've moved under center at an increase of 13.3 percentage points in that same span, the highest in the NFL both before and after the adjustment, and run the ball from under center on 77 percent of snaps. That increase might make them slightly more predictable, but the addition of a second tight end has also helped the Rams rack up plenty of rushing yards, which has increased the effectiveness of play-action passes. All five of Goff's passing TDs since Week 16 have come on play-action passes, per Pro Football Focus. Two of those came out of 12 personnel. That type of balance then makes them less predictable, increasing their offensive potential and increasing headaches for defensive coordinators -- and it starts with how well Anderson and Gurley run the ball against New Orleans' No. 2 rush defense.

Prediction


It's extremely difficult to pick against the Saints when they're playing in the Superdome. It's one of the loudest environments in the NFL and this is a stellar Saints squad. But that game last week -- which very well could have ended in a last-second Eagles win, had Alshon Jeffery not had Nick Foles' pass glance off his hands -- raised some concerns about that advantage. These Rams are rolling offensively, thanks to the play of Gurley, Anderson and Goff, and the playcalling of McVay. Los Angeles gets the win on its second try and heads back to Los Angeles with the George Halas Trophy in hand, and perhaps, a bowl of gumbo for Marcus Peters.

Rams 27, Saints 24

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