The New Orleans Saints will take on the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game on Sunday afternoon, a showdown of youth vs. age, offense vs. defense, the Big Easy vs. The City of Angels, and I’m running out of things to include in this list so I’m just going to stop now.
Sean Payton and the Saints are coming in as hot as any team in football, with their usual juggernaut offense led by Drew Brees complemented by a defense that is suddenly looking extremely tough to beat. The Saints beat the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles in the last round, and looked comfortable doing so after some early stumbles, plus one late missed field goal and nail biting final drive, which ended in a Nick Foles interception.
The Rams enter, somehow, as kind of the lowest key team in the conference championships. They are led by their ferocious defense, which pressures the quarterback as well as any team in the league. The offense, orchestrated by wunderkind coach Sean McVay – who makes me regularly feel awful about what I’ve accomplished by my age – hasn’t been as dynamic this season, but they’ve got one of the best running backs in football and Jared Goff is more than adequate at quarterback. Or, well, adequate. And that might be enough!
Here’s a look at the impact players who will decide this game:
1. Drew Brees
Brees is 40 years old, which would mean something, but it doesn’t. He’s still just as accurate and effective as ever, and Michael Thomas (more on him shortly) has developed into as reliable a receiver as Brees has had in New Orleans since, I don’t know, Joe Horn? The Rams defense is great, but Brees can move the ball on any team.
2. Todd Gurley
Gurley has been a monster in the playoffs, and what makes the Rams so dangerous is that if McVay can’t get his receivers going with his creative offense, he does have the option to just hand the ball to Gurley and let the big man rumble. That’s exactly what the Rams did in their last game against the Cowboys, when the Rams turned to Gurley and C.J. Anderson for a two-headed rushing monster that combined for over 200 yards and three touchdowns.
3. Michael Thomas
Thomas is one of those fantastic receivers who doesn’t have one, elite, defining characteristics, he just sort of does EVERYTHING well. He’s not super fast. He’s not super huge. He’s got great hands, he runs great routes, and he and Drew Brees have some sort of ESP thing going on.
4. Brandin Cooks
The Rams are dangerous all over, but Cooks gives them a breakaway receiver who just needs one ball to break open a game. If the Saints defense starts keying in on the rushing game, and Cooks gets a bit of separation from a corner, that’s all the Rams need for a touchdown.
5. Alvin Kamara
Kamara is Brees’ security blanket, a do-everything back with elite speed and the ability to make guys miss. Just about every fifth play from the Saints is some sort of action to try and create a mismatch for Kamara, or finding the way to get him the ball in a bit of space. Brees can go through progressions as well as anyone, but sometimes you just need to dump the ball to Kamara in the flat and let him go to work.
6. Aaron Donald
The one-man wrecking crew, Donald is probably the best defensive player currently working in the NFL. His 20.5 sacks on the season is jaw dropping enough, but that doesn’t count all the times Donald forces double or even triple teams, and allows his teammates to go make plays on the quarterback. Brees will need to move the ball quickly if he wants to stay upright.