For almost the entire 2018 NFL regular season, the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints competed to be the top team in the NFC. The Saints actually handed the Rams their first loss of the year in Week 8.
That game, like Sunday's upcoming rematch, took place at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans holds a decided advantage there thanks to the home turf, loud confines and raucous crowd. However, this Los Angeles team is built to win on the road and in hostile conditions.
The two-headed rushing attack of C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley should allow the Rams to simply put their heads down and plow ahead.
The potential is there for this to be one of the great NFC title games in recent memory. That rushing attack versus the Saints' second-ranked run defense, Drew Brees versus Jared Goff, San Payton versus Sean McVay—this one could truly be epic.
Read on for some of the latest buzz surrounding the 2019 NFC Championship Game, but first, here's the latest odds and over/unders from OddsShark and some predictions.
NFC Conference Championship Game
Who: Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints
When: 3:05 p.m. ET
TV and Live Stream: Fox and Fox Sports Go
Odds and Over/Under: NO -3, 56.5
Prediction: Saints 32, Rams 27
A Fresh Anderson Could be Big Advantage
The aforementioned two-pronged rushing attack of the Rams is a relatively new development—it actually didn't materialize until the postseason.
Anderson was brought in late in the season after stints with the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders. He was then given the starting nod the last two weeks as Gurley rested his knee.
The two didn't actually play together until last week's win over the Dallas Cowboys, a game in which both backs rushed for over 100 yards. Having both on the field will be a big advantage for the Rams, but having a starting-caliber back with just 72 regular-season touches on his body could be huge.
"I'm the freshest running back in the league," Anderson said, per Nick Shook of NFL.com. "I'm not gonna say they're still fresh, but I'm fresher than Mark [Ingram], Alvin [Kamara] and Todd, for sure."
Both New Orleans and Los Angeles had byes over Wild Card Weekend, and Anderson has seen significant action over the last month. However, there's little denying that he should be as healthy and as fresh as anyone on the field Sunday.
If Anderson looks to be a clear step faster than the competition, and the Rams roll, don't be shocked if teams start experimenting with the idea of having a second, postseason starter at running back.
Rams Planning to Come After Brees
New Orleans will try to counter the Rams rushing attack with its own backfield duo of Ingram and Kamara. Having a future Hall of Famer in Bress will certainly help matters.
Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles doesn't plan to simply let Brees sit comfortably in the pocket while picking apart its 14th-ranked pass defense (236.2 yards per game allowed).
"Anytime you play against a great quarterback like that, he’s going to do things a normal quarterback ain’t going to do," defensive tackle Aaron Donald said, per Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com.
"So we know what to expect. We try to do what we got to do to try our best to make him uncomfortable and get after him and, you know, but we got to stop the run first before we think about rushing the passer."
It's good that L.A. acknowledges it needs to stop the run first because the Rams have actually been quite bad at doing so over the past year. They allowed an average of 122.3 yards rushing per game (23rd) in the regular season. If Kamara and Ingram get going, the Rams defense could be in for a long day.
However, getting after Brees will definitely need to be the plan in certain situations—long third downs, inside two minutes, etc. Confusing him with coverages or expecting to simply blanket Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr. and Co. isn't likely to pay off positively.
Saints Looking for a Fast Start
One scenario that could see the Saints relying heavily on Brees—and therefore the Rams trying to pressure him—is a comeback attempt. New Orleans spent much of last week's game against the Philadelphia Eagles trying to overcome an early 14-0 deficit. With L.A.'s pass rush and running game, a similar start this week could prove fatal.
Naturally, New Orleans is making a concerted effort to avoid such a start.
"We just have to be locked in early, and we have to start fast," cornerback P.J. Williams said, per Guerry Smith of the New Orleans Advocate. "Definitely coming off the bye week and also not playing much the week before, that might have made us start a little slow"
If complacency was indeed partially responsible for last week's slow start, it shouldn't be an issue this week. New Orleans was in a battle for the full four quarters last week, and the intensity of the comeback win should carry over into Sunday.