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Big plays by each unit lift New Orleans Saints to victory over Rams

Fake field goal stop was emotional lift for Saints

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That one was huge.

Probably, no one will say as much. It's one-game-at-a-time, each-one-is-equally-important, etc.

But Sunday's 45-35 victory by the New Orleans Saints (7-1) over the Rams (8-1) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome didn't just allow New Orleans to maintain first place in the NFC South. And it didn't just hand the Rams their first loss of the season.

It gave the Saints the head-to-head advantage if there's a tiebreak scenario with the Rams down the road. Sure, there are two months of football remaining to be played, and the Saints' schedule is challenging to say the least. But New Orleans and Los Angeles have the best records in the NFC and if they continue along this path, Sunday might not be the only time they meet this season.

For the Saints, it'll be nice if that next matchup also is inside the Superdome.

Meanwhile, big contributions in each phase helped get it done.

OFFENSE: An NFL-record 24 first downs in the first half, to go along with 313 yards and five touchdowns, shows you how efficiently the Saints operated in the first two quarters. And then, the best fourth-quarter team in the league (12.1 points per game) did it again, with a touchdown and field goal on two of its four fourth-quarter possessions (one drive ended in a punt and another, with the Saints kneeling from the Victory formation). The Saints had offensive stars all over the place – Drew Brees completed 25 of 36 passes for 346 yards and four touchdowns, Michael Thomas caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a score, Alvin Kamara had 23 touches for 116 yards and three touchdowns – and they had their way with the Rams' defense. New Orleans converted 7 of 12 third-down chances, both fourth-down attempts, averaged seven yards per play and dominated time of possession 33:41-26:19. There wasn't much to not like, other than Mark Ingram's lost fumble.

DEFENSE: The unit got stops when it really needed to, and those few critical stops were monumental factors. In the second quarter, with Los Angeles operating with a short field after the Ingram fumble, the defense allowed six yards on three plays, then watched Craig Robertson tackle the runner short of the sticks on a fake field goal attempt to get off the field without allowing a point and preserving a 14-14 tie. Later in the second quarter, linebacker Alex Anzalone intercepted a pass at the Rams' 36-yard line and returned it two yards to give New Orleans possession at the Rams 34 with 59 seconds left in the half. Those two stops led to touchdown drives. And in the fourth quarter, after watching the Rams score their 21st unanswered point to knot the score at 35-35, the Saints forced a three-and-out, then produced a fourth-down stop to squash the Rams' final two possessions. The overall numbers weren't pretty – 35 points, 483 total yards and 391 passing yards allowed – but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And most eyes recognize that those four defensive stops probably were the difference for the Saints on Sunday.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Robertson tackle was as significant a play as any that was made Sunday. If he hadn't tracked down Johnny Hekker, the Rams punter would've run for a first down, kept alive the drive and New Orleans might have allowed the touchdown it so desperately wanted to avoid giving up. Instead, the veteran linebacker made the play that might have been the biggest in a game full of big ones. Wil Lutz made his 14th straight field goal, a 54-yarder in the fourth quarter that gave Saints a 38-35 lead and he's displaying clutch chops. Kickoff coverage wasn't ideal (three for 88 yards) and that's something the Saints will address, but the Rams have some of the best return units in the league, so it wasn't totally beyond the realm that they'd have a nice return or two.

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