Potent offenses collide as Saints, Rams meet for NFC title
Drew Brees turned 40 on Tuesday, and the New Orleans Saints quarterback will cap off his birthday week matching throws and wits on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game with Jared Goff, the Los Angeles Rams quarterback who is 16 years younger.
Brees is in no mood for nostalgia, but he knows better than anyone else that chances to win a Super Bowl don't come around often.
"I think that's been well communicated, really, as we've journeyed through the season and as we've hit every benchmark," Brees said of being one victory away from his second Super Bowl appearance, the other when he won a title after the 2009 season. "Don't take it for granted. Appreciate it. We are still a young team in a lot of areas, but we also have a lot of great veteran leadership."
Goff said he appreciated Brees' willingness to share some insights into the art of quarterbacking when they played together in the Pro Bowl last year.
Brees said he was simply "paying forward" what other veteran quarterbacks did for him, guys like Doug Flutie, Trent Dilfer and Kurt Warner.
"I told myself at that time that hopefully I can play long enough where guys start asking advice from me," Brees said, smiling.
In their 45-35 regular-season victory over the Rams in November, the Saints held a 35-14 lead late in the second quarter -- scoring touchdowns on five of their six first-half possessions. Their only miscue came when Mark Ingram fumbled at the New Orleans 22 with the game tied at 14, but the Rams wasted that scoring opportunity when they passed up a go-ahead, 34-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 and failed to convert on holder Johnny Hekker's run around right end.
The Rams rallied starting late in the second quarter and put up 21 consecutive points to the tie the game at 35, only to have Brees connect with Michael Thomas on a 72-yard touchdown with 3:53 left to seal the victory.
When Saints coach Sean Payton remarked after the game that he liked the matchup of Thomas going against Rams cornerback Marcus Peters, the defensive back fired back and said he was relishing a rematch.
Asked Wednesday about the verbal dustup, Payton discounted any bad blood, saying the Saints had come close to drafting Peters in 2015.
In the November matchup, Brees completed 25 of 36 passes for 346 yards and four touchdowns, and Thomas caught 12 passes for a career-high 211 yards to hand the Rams their first loss of the season.
In the rematch, the Saints will be playing without one of their best run-stoppers, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who sustained a torn Achilles tendon in New Orleans' 20-14 divisional playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
The Rams also will be without one of their best performers, wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in Week 10. Kupp had 40 catches for 566 yards and six touchdowns in eight games this season.
"That game was a while ago," Rams coach Sean McVay said of New Orleans' head-to-head win. "It was a great reference point for us to work from and try to learn from some of the mistakes everybody made, and we're looking forward to the challenge again on Sunday."
The Rams, playing in their first NFC Championship Game since 2001-02, are coming off an impressive 30-22 victory over Dallas in which they produced 273 rushing yards, the most ever surrendered by the Cowboys in the playoffs. Running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson combined for 238 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries (6.1-yard average).
"I thought those guys did a great job complementing each other," McVay said. "Certainly, Todd's our guy, but I thought C.J. was a great change of pace to come in there and be able to do some really good things."
The rematch should have plenty of offensive fireworks. The Rams finished No. 2 in the NFL in scoring (32.9 points per game), but the Saints were right behind them at No. 3 (31.5). Both defenses finished in the middle of the pack in total yardage allowed and points allowed.
While Gurley and Anderson proved they could pound the ball against the Cowboys, the Saints' Alvin Kamara and Ingram provide the sixth-best rushing attack in the league. Kamara had three first-half touchdowns in the November meeting.
"We need to keep our gap integrity and tackle well," McVay said.
--Field Level Media
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