LOS ANGELES — Just a few weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints' first visit to Los Angeles since 1994 seemed highly unlikely to be a meeting of powerhouse division leaders.
But the Rams (7-3) and the Saints (8-2) have been two of the NFL's most pleasant surprises this season. New Orleans has won eight straight games after an 0-2 start, while the Rams have dramatically ended a decade of mediocrity with one of the league's most exciting teams.
Quarterback Jared Goff faces Drew Brees at the Coliseum on Sunday in a game that could have playoff position implications for two franchises that haven't been on the league's biggest stage in the past few years.
Both are eager to cement themselves as Super Bowl contenders with a key victory on their probable paths to the post-season.
"They're fighting for the exact same things that we are fighting for, and they have had a phenomenal season thus far," Brees said.
New Orleans and Los Angeles boast two of the NFL's three highest-scoring squads, both averaging more than 30 points per game. While Brees' veteran experience contrasts sharply with Goff's youth and growth, the offences also boast two of the NFL's top running backs in Mark Ingram and Todd Gurley.
Although both defences are solid, Gurley and the Rams realize they might have to outscore the Saints in a shootout.
"We're a top-10 offence, and if you're playing against a top-10 offence, you have to get your mind prepared for that," Gurley said. "(Brees) is a Hall of Fame quarterback for a reason. He's going to make plays, but also we have a great defence where I believe those guys can stop him. ... You just have to get the mind mentally prepared for that. Hopefully it doesn't come to that, but you just have to know that you have to be on your 'A' game come Sunday."
Although the Rams don't have much experience in going back to work after losses this season, coach Sean McVay liked what he saw in his team's resilience this week after a 24-7 defeat at Minnesota snapped its four-game winning streak. The Rams will need it in a four-week stretch with three games against their fellow NFC division leaders.
The Saints have their own stretch of tough games coming up, but they're riding a wave of confidence after their comeback overtime victory over Washington last week.
"When you do win in a lot of different ways, no matter what the scenario, you feel like, 'Hey, we've been here before,'" Brees said. "'We know how to win this game.' There's just a belief in the confidence."
Here are more things to watch when these former NFC West rivals get together:
REUNION GAME: These teams also met last year, and the Saints' 49-21 victory seemed personal. Coach Sean Payton poured it on the defence of his former co-ordinator, Gregg Williams, with a dominant attack that included a TD pass on a flea-flicker in the fourth quarter while New Orleans already had a 21-point lead. The flourish annoyed some Rams.
"All I remember was I wasn't playing in the fourth quarter because we were getting beat so bad, so that's not a good thing," Gurley said. "Obviously, we had coach Williams there and coach Payton was trying to get after him, so hopefully it won't be too aggressive this year. It definitely wasn't good."
CORNER CONCERNS: Both teams have injury worries in the secondary, which means Brees and Goff could be able to challenge backup cornerbacks in coverage with top receivers. The Saints brought back veteran free agent Sterling Moore this week because of concerns about the health of Marshon Lattimore (ankle) and Ken Crawley (abdomen), their top two cornerbacks. The Rams are hoping starter Kayvon Webster will be cleared from the NFL's concussion protocol in time to play, because backup Nickell Robey-Coleman (thigh) probably will be out.
BACKFIELD BONANZA: Two of the NFL's top running backs will be showcased. Ingram has more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage this season and has been particularly effective the past two games, with 131 yards and three TDs against Buffalo and 131 yards and another TD against Washington. Ingram is fourth in the NFL with 806 yards rushing, while Gurley is right behind him with 791. Gurley is also the NFL's top scorer among non-kickers with 66 points.
WADE'S GUYS: Rams defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips was New Orleans' defensive co-ordinator and briefly head coach in the 1980s. He also coached in San Diego when Brees broke into the NFL with the Chargers. "We went from 4-12 and the first pick in the draft to 12-4 and won the division, so I know what he can do," Phillips said. "I've admired him throughout, and he's just an all-time great. But (the Saints) have got the best running game they've had since they won the Super Bowl (2009 season), and I think that's the real key."
ON EDGE: The Saints will have one new starting defensive end following Alex Okafor's season-ending Achilles tendon injury last week. The role could be filled by rookie Trey Hendrickson, a third-round draft choice who has two sacks as a reserve. Hau'oli Kikaha, who missed last season with a torn knee ligament, also could rotate in after getting three sacks in seven games.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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