For the first time in 38 years, the (8-2) New Orleans Saints will face the (7-3) Los Angeles Rams at the legendary Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when they travel to Southern California for Thanksgiving Weekend, in a critical NFC match-up between two of the conference's top teams.
The last time that the teams played at the Coliseum was in December of 1979, when QB Archie Manning and the Saints defeated QB Vince Ferragamo and the Rams by a score of 29-14 in the 1979 regular season finale.
The Rams began playing their home games in Anaheim, CA. in suburban Los Angeles beginning in the 1980 season, where the teams faced each other up until 1995, when the team moved to St. Louis.
The Rams moved back to Los Angeles from St. Louis last season, and this game Sunday will mark the Saints' first game back at the old stadium that originally opened nearly 100 years ago, in 1923.
The Saints will be seeking their 9th straight win in a row — but will "9 be fine" when they face the Rams at the Coliseum this Sunday?
Both teams are dealing with major injury concerns.
The Saints announced yesterday that defensive end / edge pass rusher Alex Okafor was gone for the remainder of the season, after tearing his achilles tendon against the Redskins this past Sunday.
Additionally, 3 more key defensive starters — cornerback Marshon Lattimore, free safety Kenny Vaccaro, and linebacker A.J. Klein — are all likely to be listed as 'questionable' on the injury report for this game.
Vaccaro and Klein as of this very moment appear as if they'll be ready to play; though the status of Lattimore is a bit more uncertain and is part of the reason why the team re-signed veteran CB Sterling Moore yesterday, who played well for the team last season before he was released back in September.
Meanwhile, the Rams are dealing with injury concerns of their own.
Los Angeles Times Rams writer Gary Klein reported yesterday that Rams leading wide receiver Robert Woods — who has spent most of this season so far making dynamic plays after catching short, mid-range and long passes — will be sidelined because of a shoulder injury suffered during the Rams’ loss to Minnesota this past Sunday, according to Rams head coach Sean McVay.
“It requires some guys to step up and fill the void left by Robert,” McVay said. “He’s done a lot of great things…. Hopefully, we’ll get him back sooner than later.”
Woods has a team-best 47 receptions for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns for the Rams high-powered offense, led by 2nd year QB Jared Goff.
Woods suffered a left shoulder sprain after catching a pass during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss, which ended the Rams’ four-game winning streak.
Klein notes that Woods left the locker room after the game with his left arm in a sling. The Rams initially feared that the receiver might require season-ending surgery, McVay said, but doctors determined the injury was not as serious.
“The optimistic approach is, hopefully, a couple weeks,” McVay said.
Klein adds that Woods’ injury is not the only one of concern to a Rams team that mostly avoided them through the first nine games.
Cornerback Kayvon Webster was put into concussion protocol and cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman suffered a thigh injury during Sunday’s defeat.
So if can be said that the Saints are "hurting" going into this Sunday's highly-anticipated match-up, then they won't be alone.
As it is, the Rams will be looking to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time all season; and being at home back at within the friendly confines of the L.A. Coliseum is why Vegas Insider currently has the Rams as 2.5-point favorites over the Saints for Sunday's game.
However, despite being the home favorite and the leaders of the NFC West Division, the Rams' 7-3 record may be considered a bit misleading — since they have only just (1) win against a team that currently has a winning record (Jacksonville Jaguars).
The Rams (the NFL's highest-scoring team when Week #11 began) had their high-powered offense held in check by a tough Vikings defense while playing in one of the NFL's loudest environments at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, in a late-season game that seemed to bring with it a playoff-like level of intensity.
And as ESPN Rams beat writer Alden Gonzalez noted after the loss: Los Angeles got a sense of what it's like to navigate through a slim margin for error, the type they hardly experienced while outscoring teams by 103 points during a four-game winning streak.
Now the question becomes: can the Rams offense bounce back again the Saints in a much more favorable environment, and one certainly more favorable than the Superdome; where the Saints destroyed them by a score of 49-21 last season?
Obviously this is a much different Rams team than the one that the Saints faced last season.
In that contest, the game was close at halftime; but the Saints applied plenty of heat in the second half, when Goff completed 8 of 12 passes for just 47 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception, and he was sacked twice.
And in addition to rattling Goff, they shut down the Rams’ running game, holding Todd Gurley to 50 yards on 13 carries. New Orleans finished with three sacks in that contest, and it goes without saying that a key to a Saints victory will be getting adequate pressure on Goff, despite the season-ending injury to Okafor.
On the "flip side": another key to a Saints victory could be the continuing commitment to the running game, led by RB's Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
The Rams defense — as good as it is under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips — is giving up 123.3 yards rushing per game, which ranks 28th among 32 teams.
Conversely, the Saints, average 144 yards rushing per game, which ranks 3rd in the NFL.
So you obviously don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that the Saints will probably look to establish the running game early and often in this one, though it is very important to note: Vikings QB Case Keenum was able to LIGHT UP the Rams pass defense because of their penchant for blitzing.
Los Angeles blitzed a season-high 20 times this past Sunday, and Keenum was 15-of-20 for 191 yards, including his 65-yard touchdown pass to WR Adam Thielen, when facing the blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Translation: the Rams will have to "pick their poison" very carefully against the Saints, who are led by a veteran QB named Drew Brees who can make teams pay dearly for blitzing him one too many times.
Winning this week won't be easy by any stretch for the Saints, and this could finally be the week that their improbable winning streak comes to an end.
But after the way that they won this past Sunday in the overtime thriller over the Redskins, you'd damn sure better not ever count them out.