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Los Angeles Rams' defense roughs up Drew Brees, Saints in win

LOS ANGELES -- Drew Brees rolled into Tinseltown with 68,894 career passing yards, an eight-game winning streak and perhaps the most well-rounded New Orleans Saints team since the one he led to the franchise's only Super Bowl championship eight years ago.

Yet by the time he jogged off the L.A. Memorial Coliseum grass late Sunday afternoon, the future Hall of Fame quarterback felt like he was running on empty.

"That was not good," Brees said after the Saints' 26-20 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. "We just couldn't get in a rhythm."

More accurately: The Rams refused to let that happen.

In a storyline very few of the 62,006 fans at the Coliseum could have predicted, the home team's decidedly devoid-of-hype defense was the dominant force in a late-November showdown between surprising NFC division leaders. And while L.A. quarterback Jared Goff continued his splendid second-year breakout tour with a 28-for-43, 354-yard performance, even he acknowledged that the Rams' 'D' deserved the bulk of the credit.

"What they did was so impressive," Goff said as he stood at his locker shortly after the game. "To go up against Drew Brees, and two stud running backs, and basically hold them to 13 points until the very end of the game ... that's huge. The best thing was the pass rush -- they got to Drew early and kept the pressure on.

"When there are guys in your face, it's really, really tough -- even for a Hall of Famer."

Someday Brees, 38, will partake in a stirring enshrinement ceremony in Canton, Ohio -- but right now he's very much living in the present. And with good reason: After starting 0-2, the Saints (8-3) seemed headed for a fourth consecutive losing season, only to emerge as an out-of-nowhere success story that caught virtually the entire NFL off guard.

With an imposing defense, led by menacing and versatile lineman Cam Jordan (who had two sacks and two passes defensed on Sunday), and a balanced offensive attack fueled by the running back tandem of veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, New Orleans looks built for success in January.

As Brees said after Sunday's game, "We've had some rough seasons to get to this point."

Having such a balanced operation has eased the burden on Brees, who entered Sunday's game in a good place: He was fresh off an epic late-game comeback victory over Washington and was directing a Saints attack averaging 32.9 points per game over the course of its winning streak.

His numbers (22 for 32, 246 yards) on Sunday were respectable, but Brees was never in command of this game. Harassed early and often, he was sacked three times, hit repeatedly throughout the afternoon and was unable to extricate New Orleans from an early 10-0 hole.

Were it not for the individual brilliance of Kamara, the third-round draft pick who'd probably be a top-10 overall selection if there were a re-draft today, the Saints might not have found the end zone at all. Kamara brought New Orleans to within three points on a 74-yard scoring burst late in the first quarter and caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Brees with 1:45 remaining in the game to set up a last-gasp onside kick -- and did a whole lot of damage in between, finishing with 188 yards from scrimmage on 11 touches.

"Wowwwwwww," Rams coach Sean McVay said of Kamara. "When that guy has the ball in his hands -- yikes. They're a really dangerous team, and we knew we had to come out and be aggressive."

That the Rams (8-3) forced the issue on offense was not a surprise; defensively, L.A. was equally proactive, which was not nearly as predictable against such an accomplished foe.

"We just started off on a roll," said Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (five tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss), who is simply one of the NFL's best players. "We did a great job of not letting [Brees] get comfortable. Yes, definitely, he was [frustrated]. We had a lot of guys putting pressure on him and hitting him."

To be fair, fast starts have been a recurring theme for the Rams' defense under 70-year-old coordinator Wade Phillips, who joined McVay's staff after a highly successful stint with the Broncos that included a defense-fueled Super Bowl 50 triumph.

"Our first play of the season, against the Colts (a 46-9 victory), we intercepted a pass and took it to the house," Phillips reminded me after Sunday's game. "Our third game (a 41-39 triumph over the 49ers), we got an interception on the first play and scored on the next play. So yeah, we've gotten after it and we've had our moments."

The Rams didn't force any turnovers Sunday, but they did hold the Saints to 14 first downs and kept them from converting 10 of 13 third downs, with standout efforts from linebacker Alec Ogletree (seven tackles, one pass defensed), cornerback Trumaine Johnson (six tackles, one pass defensed), linebacker Mark Barron (five tackles) and pass rusher Robert Quinn (five tackles, one sack, one forced fumble).

"I think [the Saints] underestimated how good we were," said cornerback Kayvon Webster, who had four tackles and two passes defensed. "We came out and did what we practiced, and Wade put us in great positions, and we frustrated [Brees], especially early in the game." After scoring on a seven-play opening drive, culminating on Goff's 5-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins, the Rams set a tone on the Saints' first possession, forcing a punt after back-to-back sacks by Donald and Quinn.

As the game progressed, L.A. had success in stopping Ingram (11 carries, 31 yards). Kamara, however, proved to be a much tougher proposition.

"He's a special player," Quinn said of Kamara. "I wasn't sure how good he really was, but he caught my attention, that's for sure."

After taking a 26-10 lead on Greg Zuerlein's fourth field goal with 2:27 left in the game, Brees launched a furious six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, culminating in a short throw to Kamara, who rambled 15 yards for the score. With the Saints out of timeouts and only 1:45 remaining, their only hope was to recover an onside kick -- but Watkins (four catches, 82 yards) ended the suspense by snatching Wil Lutz's wobbler out of the sky.

"I'm really mad we gave up all those yards at the end," Barron said afterward. "We made it look better than it was."

From a big-picture perspective, however, things were looking up for the Rams, who rebounded from last week's 24-7 defeat to the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings and remained a game ahead of the Seattle Seahawks (7-4) in the NFC West.

With games against the Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) and Seahawks coming up in the first half of December, the Rams will be right in the thick of an exciting NFC playoff chase. Meanwhile, the Saints must now fend off challenges in the NFC South from the Panthers (with whom they're tied for first place at 8-3) and the defending conference champion Atlanta Falcons (7-4).

"This was so big," Goff said. "Everyone else in the NFC won, so if we had lost, we might have been on the outside looking in. And I feel like we can really build on this."

Thanks to a defense that disrupted the rhythm of a future Hall of Famer, the Rams are in the mix -- and looking like more of a complete team than anyone could have envisioned.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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