Not many regular-season games have carried the kind of significance in Week 9 of a regular season as will Los Angeles Rams-New Orleans Saints on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Rams (8-0) are the NFL's last unbeaten team. The Saints (6-1) haven't lost since the regular-season opener, and have won three straight games against teams that were leading their respective divisions at the time.
The winner gains the head-to-head advantage on claiming the No. 1 seed in the NFC. That's enough marbles to make this a big one. Here are a few things that likely need to go well for the Saints in order for them to win:
- The Rams added defensive end Dante Fowler via trade this week, and have defensive end Michael Brockers capably handling his duties. But their defense begins on the interior, with tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Donald leads the NFL with 10 sacks and Suh (three sacks) is one of the meanest players in the league, who in several past cases has straddled the line between clean and foul play. The Saints might have the NFL's best outside tandem in left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. But the spotlight will be on the interior – left guard Andrus Peat, center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford. If they can contain Donald and Suh, the Saints will be able to dictate terms offensively.
- The Saints may be figuring out things defensively. Indulge me, and forget the yards allowed for a moment. In two games, against Tampa Bay and Atlanta, New Orleans allowed a combined 85 points (42.5 per game). In the other five, it allowed 98 points (19.6 per game). Holding opponents to 20, 21 points per game is a recipe for success for the Saints. Getting to the quarterback helps, and New Orleans has at least three sacks in five of its previous seven games. Losing rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport (toe) for any amount of time, because he was becoming a regular play-maker. But defensive end Cam Jordan (five sacks) had his way with the Rams' offensive line last year and can dominate games without recording a sack, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (four sacks this season, matching his single-season high) has been pulverizing centers and guards. Rams quarterback Jared Goff has been sacked 17 times, and New Orleans will need to speed up his clock.
- Hopefully, squaring off against the Vikings' receiving corps last Sunday night was good preparation for the Saints' secondary against the Rams. Cornerback P.J. Williams returned an interception for a touchdown and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, cornerback Eli Apple had a team-leading nine tackles in his Saints debut, and cornerback Marshon Lattimore had two passes defensed and a fumble recovery. But the play of the secondary was shaky early against the Vikings, and will be tested again by Rams receivers Robert Woods (46-672-3), Brandin Cooks (35-643-2) and Cooper Kupp (30-438-5). A trio of receivers as capable as the Rams' completely won't be shut down, but the Saints need "wins" in coverage a little more often than they had early in Minneapolis.
- Todd Gurley is a problem. The Rams running back leads the league in rushing yards (800), rushing touchdowns (11), total touchdowns (15) and scoring (96 points). The Rams, behind Gurley, lead the league with 150.9 rushing yards per game. New Orleans may be the best-equipped team to make the Rams one-dimensional; it remains the best defense against the run (74.1 yards allowed per game, 3.2 yards allowed per carry). This won't be an easy task. Saints linebackers Demario Davis (55 tackles) and A.J. Klein (38), and safety Vonn Bell (37) will have a busy afternoon, but they need to help take away the Rams' running game and get the defense in favorable down-and-distance situations.
- This is a specialist dream game, featuring outstanding kickers (New Orleans' Wil Lutz and Los Angeles' Greg Zuerlein) and punters (the Saints' Thomas Morstead and the Rams' Johnny Hekker). Field position will be at a premium, so effective punting likely will have an influence. And if it's close, each kicker is capable of coolly converting a game winner.