Top storyline: Saints aim to clinch playoff spot in St. Louis
After putting that horrific 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks behind them last week with a solid performance back home against the Carolina Panthers — a win the Saints absolutely had to have — they can breathe again.
While they’re certainly not out of the woods yet, the Saints know they at least have a little cushion to work with going into Sunday’s matchup with the St. Louis Rams.
Instead of having to play catch-up, the Saints have a slight advantage on the Panthers heading into the final three games of the regular season.
Here’s the best part for the Saints: They can wrap up a playoff berth with a win against the Rams, and they can still get there through some other scenarios in the Week 15 slate of games.
But the game with the Rams offers more than a ticket to the postseason — a whole lot more.
Since they hold a one-game lead on the Panthers, all the Saints have to do is claim two of their final three games to clinch the NFC South title. So getting a leg up on that against the Rams is a priority for Sean Payton and his team.
To do that, the Saints are going to have to play better than they have on the road as of late.
Dating to an Oct. 13 loss at New England, the Saints are just 1-3 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, their only victory coming against the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
So getting their swagger back on the road, where they have the NFL’s best record since 2009, is something else to shoot for Sunday.
About the Rams
Playing in arguably the NFL’s toughest division, the NFC West, the Rams made inroads in 2012, their first season under longtime Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
The Rams went 7-8-1, which included a 2-1-1 mark against the division’s top dogs — the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks — and appeared to be on their way.
That belief was affirmed when they started 2013 with a win against the Arizona Cardinals. But they quickly faltered and, at 5-8, are guaranteed a 10th straight non-winning season.
The Rams have two three-game losing streaks this season and could make it three if they fall to the Saints.
It didn’t help that they lost quarterback Sam Bradford to a knee injury in October and couldn’t run the ball when he was in the lineup.
But the Saints are wary of a running game that has averaged more than 140 yards per outing in the past nine games and a defense that ranks among the NFL leaders in sacks (38) and takeaways (24).
Key matchup: Saints’ Drew Brees vs. Rams secondary
Coming off a four-touchdown performance in last week’s must-have win over Carolina, Brees could be in for another productive day against a Rams secondary that is young — and hurting a bit.
The Rams rank 22nd in pass defense, allowing 248.8 yards per game, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Opposing quarterbacks have connected on at least 65.0 percent of their passes in nine of 13 games and have a completion rate of 68.5 percent for the season.
So that’s a big green light for play-caller Sean Payton and Brees, who has completed 68.0 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and just eight interceptions for a 106.5 passer rating — which could make for a long and miserable day.
X factor: Saints LT Charles Brown
After faring well last week against a couple of top sack threats in Panthers defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the job gets even tougher this week for Brown.
Brown, who has settled into a starting role after struggling with holding penalties early in the season, will have to be up to the task of keeping Drew Brees upright against one of the top sack tandems in the league: defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long.
Quinn, a third-year pro, leads the NFC with 13 sacks, and Long has 61/2. But while Long has only half of Quinn’s total, Brown certainly knows what Long is capable of after he had three sacks — two against Brown — in a shocking 31-21 win against the Saints in 2011.
Giving an accurate passer like Brees enough time to sit back and go through his progressions against the Rams’ porous secondary could help his capable receivers create adequate separation — which could mean a huge day for the Saints’ second-ranked passing attack.
3 and out
1. MAGIC NUMBER: The Saints are 50-6 under Sean Payton when they score 30 points or more, including 5-0 this season after last week’s 31-13 beating of Carolina. Conversely, the Rams are 0-5 this season when allowing at least 30 points.
2. TOUCHDOWN MAKER: Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins is questionable with a back problem, but Drew Brees will be wary of him if he’s active. In 2012, Jenkins returned three interceptions for TDs to tie an NFL record for rookies and returned a fumble for another score.
3. HELLO AGAIN: The Saints and Rams, who used to meet twice a year as members of the old NFC West from 1970-2001, will play for the 72nd time — the third-most for the Saints behind the Atlanta Falcons (90 meetings) and San Francisco 49ers (74).