No need easing into this one.
It's New Orleans Saints-Los Angeles Rams, for the NFC championship, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. Winner advances to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3, loser goes home.
Here are a few things to watch:
- We don't know for sure what the Rams' plan is for Saints receiver Michael Thomas, but we know they have one. Thomas undressed the Rams in the regular-season meeting, a game in which he caught 12 passes for a franchise-record 211 yards and a touchdown during a 45-35 victory. In that game, he victimized cornerback Marcus Peters. On Sunday, it may be Aquib Talib who's matched against Thomas. Talib is a veteran, he's physical, and he has risen to the occasion more than once in one-on-one challenges. Thomas is coming off a playoff win in which he caught 12 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles. However this shakes out in terms of who lines up across from Thomas, this matchup alone may be worth the price of admission.
- I won't pretend that losing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins wasn't a devastating blow for the Saints. It was. Rankins had his best NFL season (eight sacks) and emerged as an interior force for the Saints. The positive is that David Onyemata, who'll start in Rankins' place and take the lion's share of snaps that will become available, is more like a third starter in the rotation of Rankins, Onyemata and Tyeler Davison. How he holds up with the increased workload will be interesting to watch, especially against the run. Also, keep in mind that Rankins' absence elevates the snap count for rookie defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth, too. Stallworth and Onyemata can cause damage, and Sunday would be a good time to show how much damage they can do.
- Saints left guard Andrus Peat was penalized four times against the Eagles in the Divisional Playoff game, mainly dealing with Philadelphia defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, and possibly due to his hand injury that he's working to overcome. As good as Cox is, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is better. Donald, with 20.5 sacks during the regular season, will be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive year and will haul in some MVP votes as well. The problems that Peat had against the Eagles could magnify against the Rams; the Saints may have to help him with some work from center Max Unger and/or a running back or fullback. Donald is a dangerous man and he has to be neutralized to a reasonable degree. As quiet as it seemed Donald was in the first meeting, he still posted a tackle for loss, a pass defensed, a fumble recovery and four quarterback hits for his team. Peat, Unger and right guard Larry Warford will be critical.
- Let's not forget that there was a notable Saint – receiver Ted Ginn Jr. – who also didn't play in the regular-season game. Whoever among Talib and Peters doesn't have to deal with Thomas, could see a lot of Ginn Jr. The man still is among the fastest in the league – he was an underthrown pass away from a 75-yard touchdown reception on the opening play against the Eagles – and he brings the "back up" element to the Saints offense against opposing defenses. If the Rams are playing man-to-man, he'll have a shot to get deep.
- Never overlook special teams in a big game. The Saints have converted three fake punts this season into first downs; the Rams attempted a fake field goal against New Orleans during the regular season, and linebacker Craig Robertson read the play and tackled punter Johnny Hekker short of the first down. Both teams have good punters and kickers, which means neither is going to allow much in the return game. A missed field goal, or a shanked punt, could go a long way toward tilting the field and momentum if this is a close game.