Defence wins championships is the age-old saying that we often hear on repeat when the NFL playoffs roll around. In January, pundits, fans and ex-players point to teams with a stifling defence and a relentless running game as having the best chance of hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy. Not this year though.
The remaining teams are, quite simply, offensive juggernauts. Now whilst the AFC Championship between New England and Kansas City was pitched as the veteran champion versus the young contender, the same could be said of the two teams fighting it out for the NFC title in the Big Easy.
Except this is more about the two men responsible for the Xs and Os of their respective teams. Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints head coach since 2006, has long been considered one of the NFL’s primary offensive innovators. On the opposing sideline, Payton’s namesake, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, is regarded as the up and coming offensive coach in the league. Many would argue McVay is already established in that manner given the way teams have rushed to hire head coaches who have worked with the former Washington coordinator.
When these teams met in week 9 of the regular season, the Saints handed the Rams their first loss in a 45-35 win, though this game was more about both teams’ defences.
The Saints opened the game with a heavy emphasis on passing, driving down the field and just missing out on six points from a dropped pass in the end zone by tight end Tom Arnold. Will Lutz came in and dutifully kicked the field goal, maintaining the exemplary standard he set throughout the regular season with only two missed kicks and one missed extra point.
The Rams responded, as would be expected, with offensive focal point (and league leader in touchdowns), Todd Gurley. However, the former Georgia running back was tackled for a loss on 2nd down and the tipped pass off his fingertips led to an early interception by Saints linebacker Demario Davis inside the Rams 20. Not the start LA was hoping for.
Nonetheless, the Rams defence stiffened and again held Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his offense to a field goal. Despite this, McVay’s offense couldn’t get going and was forced to punt after a three and out. On the following New Orleans drive, Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers was drawn offside on 4th and 2, and on the next play Brees completed a touchdown pass to tight end Garrett Griffin putting the home team up 13-0 at the end of the first quarter.
The Rams offence wasn’t looking like a team that had finished the regular season ranked 2nd in total offense. It took a fake punt on 4th and 5 in LA’s own territory to spark the team with punter Johnny Hekker completing a 12 yard pass to cornerback Sam Shields. That was the fifth play of a 14-play drive that was capped with a Greg Zuerlein field goal. During that drive McVay turned to running back C.J. Anderson to spark the run game whilst Gurley looked on from the sideline.
With over three minutes left in the half, Brees was sacked on consecutive plays on first and second down by Ndamukong Suh (with help by Dante Fowler Jr on the second sack) to force 3rd and 17. Brees completed a short pass to Kamara, bringing punter Thomas Morstead on and leaving the Rams with under two minutes to score points and keep them in the game.
LA quarterback Jared Goff hit successive completions of 9 and 13 yards to wideout Josh Reynolds, before two incomplete passes. However, Goff hit former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks for a 17 yard gain and then a long completion of 36 yards again to Cooks to put the Rams inside New Orleans’ 10 yard line. Gurley capped the drive with a short touchdown run to bring the Rams to within 3 points at the end of the half.
Any momentum Los Angeles had gained at the end of the half didn’t roll over to their first drive of the third quarter, going 3 and out with a tackle for a loss on first down and incomplete passes on second and third down. The Saints began the second half with a heavy dose of passes to running back Alvin Kamara out of the backfield, scoring a touchdown on 3rd and goal at the Rams 2 with a Brees pass to backup quarterback/receiver/runner Taysom Hill.
The Rams next drive was highlighted by long completions of 14 and 25 yards to Brandin Cooks, who had been kept quiet in the first half, whilst fellow receiver Josh Reynolds took a handoff 16 yards to New Orleans 1-yard line. After a fumbled first down snap, short second down run, Goff hit a wide-open Tyler Higbee to cut the Saints 10 point lead by 7.
In the fourth quarter, two non-calls by the officials on defensive pass interference stood out. The first came at the start of the quarter on a 3rd and 7 pass to Ted Ginn with LA cornerback Robey-Coleman draped all over him. The second came on a New Orleans field goal drive, after the Rams had drawn level with a field goal of their own on the previous drive. With less than 2 minutes left Payton called a first down pass by Brees that fell incomplete and stopped the clock. The second down call of a run by Kamara was held for no gain. On 3rd and 10, Brees tried to hit receiver Tommy Lee Lewis, but he was blatantly body checked by Robey-Coleman who again escaped punishment from the officials. Not only did that cancel out a certain New Orleans first down, it stopped the clock and forced the Saints to kick a field goal, which the Rams then negated with 19 seconds left of regulation. Overtime.
The Saints won the toss and elected to receive the kickoff. But they couldn’t make anything happen. On the fourth play of the drive, Brees’ pass was deflected by Fowler and fell into the numbers of John Johnson. All that was left was for Goff to make a couple of key throws under pressure to tight end Higbee, and the Rams own Mr. Dependable, Greg Zuerlein to kick the winning field goal from 57 yards. After last season’s Miracle of Minneapolis, the Saints’ hearts were broken in far crueller fashion after getting to within one game of the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, this game will be remembered for the key penalties missed by the officials, but McVay and his offense will need to get back to their regular season effectiveness if they are to convert their NFC Championship silverware into the Vince Lombardi trophy.