Playoff spots at stake as Rams, Saints meet in Thursday showdown on TSN
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — The short week of rest and recovery for a Thursday night game is never a welcome sight on the schedule for NFL teams.
Getting that assignment in Week 16 is particularly unpleasant for beat-up players and sleep-deprived coaches — and even more daunting when the matchup carries significant playoff implications.
The Rams (7-7) have won four of five while playing their best football in two years, and they would like to keep their momentum going.
“Feels good to actually be playing at what we’re capable of,” Rams linebacker Ernest Jones said. “Early on, we let a lot of games slip, so it’s good to be rolling again. We can’t wait to show everyone that this young team, we’re still going to fight.”
The Saints (7-7) are also on a roll with two straight dominant wins, including a 24-6 thrashing of the Giants last Sunday. They also know they'll also return home from this quick trip to the West Coast with extra time for healing and preparation for two games that could be even more important.
“After a good game that we had as a team … you want to get back out there because you feel good,” Saints quarterback Derek Carr said. “Really, it’s in the mindset, as I’ve learned over my 10 years. You’ve got to set your mind for Thursdays. They’re going to happen whether you want them to or not, and you’ve got to bring the energy and the effort to have a good day.”
Even a few weeks ago, the Saints visiting the Rams didn't look like a matchup worthy of prime time, since both teams had struggled to stay above .500 and in playoff contention this season.
But both teams have played their way into the thick of the NFC postseason race since then, setting up a compelling contrast of styles and strengths.
Sean McVay's offense has moved up to eighth in the league with a series of strong performances led by Matthew Stafford, who is on a roll with 12 TD passes and one interception in the past four games.
“I think they’ve got a lot of guys that have played in a lot of big-time games,” McVay said of the Saints. “This is a team that knows how to play winning football in the month of December, so we’ve got a great challenge."
New Orleans will counter with its excellent secondary leading a defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in two straight games.
This game is important to the first-place Saints, but they finish the season with two NFC South matchups, including a showdown on New Year’s Eve with division co-leader Tampa Bay.
“At this point we still have our destiny in our hands,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We don’t have to rely on anybody except us to try and get a playoff berth. … The moment we falter is the moment we give somebody else our fate, and I’ve been there before, probably the last two seasons. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
The Saints and Rams have split two meetings since Los Angeles' overtime win in New Orleans in the NFC championship game in January 2019 — and neither game was good for quarterbacks.
Drew Brees broke his hand in the Saints' loss in Los Angeles in September 2019 and missed the next five games, although it didn't stop New Orleans from going 13-3 that season.
Stafford then played his final game of last season in the Rams' 27-20 loss in New Orleans last November, leaving early with a possible concussion and eventually being ruled out for the season with a bruised spinal cord.
Last week, the Saints’ coaching staff strategically placed gas cans in the locker stalls of some key veteran players. The unspoken question was: How much gas do you have in the tank for a crucial late-season stretch?
“We kind of challenged older veteran players to step up and be at their best when their best is needed,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said.
Saints middle linebacker Demario Davis, now in his 12th NFL season, responded with a 10-tackle game highlighted by a sack and two tackles for loss against New York. Jordan played through ankle soreness and helped the Saints limit the Giants to just 60 yards rushing.
“It feels like it’s time for older guys to corral the team in terms of just sideline, in terms of energy, in terms of leading the charge,” Jordan said.
The previous time Carr visited SoFi Stadium, the California native and his Las Vegas Raiders got their hearts ripped out by Baker Mayfield and the Rams, who scored two late touchdowns in an electrifying 17-16 victory last December. Carr passed for just 137 yards in one of the least productive games of his 10-year career.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham’s return to the NFL after one season out of football, and with the team that drafted him, didn’t always resemble a successful comeback story this season.
Although he caught a touchdown pass in Week 3, he had just two passes thrown to him — the other falling incomplete — during his first seven games. He was then inactive for four games before returning to the lineup three games ago.
He has five catches in those three games — three for touchdowns and the other two for first downs. What's more, the Saints have scored nine TDs in 10 red zone opportunities in that stretch.
“Just his presence alone” makes a difference, Carr said. “As soon as he’s out there on the field, everyone’s antenna is up. And that’s good for us as a team.”
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL