NEW ORLEANS — The last time Drew Brees and the Saints advanced this far was after the 2009 season, and the quarterback remembers how his team and the Vikings were tracking each other week after week, month after month.
“We all felt that is who we were going to see in the NFC Championship Game,’’ Brees said. “I think this year, in many respects, that was kind of the same idea. We looked across the league and saw what the Rams were doing and the success they were having.’’
The Saints were afforded a first-hand look at the Rams on Nov. 4, engaging in an entertaining, high-flying game won by New Orleans, 45-35. Afterward, there was every reason to believe these teams could cross paths again.
“I think we had a feeling then that obviously we aspired to be in this situation, and we all had a feeling that they were going to be the team that that we might face again,’’ Brees said. “So here we are.”
Here we are, indeed. The outcome of the earlier matchup is the reason Sunday’s NFC title game is at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints and Rams both finished with 13-3 records, but the Saints gained the No. 1 seed and the Rams settled in at No. 2 based on that head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Rams took care of business last week not by soaring past the Cowboys but by pummeling a vaunted Dallas defense on the ground in a 30-22 victory in Los Angeles. The Saints were wobbled by an early 14-0 deficit but came back to hold the Eagles scoreless for the final 49 minutes in a 20-14 victory inside their ear-splitting home.
It is strange but true that this is the third time this season the Rams boarded a flight to the Big Easy — the first time in 29 years they returned again and again to the same road venue in this short of a time span. The first time was in the preseason, the second came in Week 9 and the third time will likely be the only meeting anyone remembers, as the winner moves on and the loser will be on the outside looking in for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
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“It’d be great,’’ said Jared Goff, the Rams’ third-year quarterback. “It’s always something you dream about growing up, being able to play in the Super Bowl. Try not to think about it too much because you know you have to focus on this game and get this one won and then you can focus on that.
“Even playing in the NFC Championship is a dream come true. We’re excited for it. It’s an opportunity you work for, and I think we see it as something that we’ve earned. We’ve been through a long season here, and just like the Saints, we’ve earned this spot. We have a chance to go play for a world title.”
The Rams fell behind by 21 points the first time around before rallying to tie at 35-35. The Saints got a 54-yards field goal by Will Lutz and a 72-yard Brees-to-Michael Thomas touchdown pass to pile on the final 10 points. The fireworks were befitting two of the NFL’s top three scoring teams — the Rams are No. 2 (behind only the Chiefs), putting up 32.9 points a game and the Saints are third, at 31.5 points a game.
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In some ways, this is the old guard vs. the new NFL world order. Brees celebrated his 40th birthday last week, making him almost exactly seven years older than Rams coach Sean McVay, who turns 33 on Thursday.
“Listen, I had the chance to be a part of some great teams here and a lot of playoff games,’’ Brees said. “Three NFC Championship Games in 13 years. It’s a hard game to get to, that’s for sure, so we won’t take that for granted.”
It is a hard game to get to, an even harder game to get past.
Rams DT Aaron Donald vs. Saints interior OL Andrus Peat, Max Unger and Larry Warford
It is difficult to talk in absolutes, but when Saints coach Sean Payton stated there is no argument that Donald is the best defensive player in the league, no one dared make a counter-argument. Donald is the rare interior defensive lineman who simply cannot be blocked, no matter how many players are assigned to stop him. He had a career-high 20.5 sacks this season — a Rams franchise record — and had seven multi-sack games. Unger, the former Seahawks stalwart, is solid but cannot handle this on his own. Peat struggled (four penalties) last week, and it was revealed he is playing despite late-season surgery on a broken hand.
“It’s hard to say you’re going to keep him in check,’’ Payton said of Donald. “He’s played as well. at that three technique position that we’ve seen in years.’’
Gumbo time: The first time these teams tangled, Saints receiver Michael Thomas beat Rams cornerback Marcus Peters for a 72-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, part of a 211-yard day for Thomas. Afterward, Payton tweaked Peters, saying, “They were going to travel Marcus to [Thomas], and that was fine by us. We thought we liked that matchup — a lot.” Four days later, a peeved Peters said, “Tell him to keep talking that s—, and I hope you see me soon. We’re going to have a nice little bowl of gumbo together.”
Peters downplayed the friction in the days leading up to this game. “I see you all trying to make it something that it’s not. All respect to Sean Payton and what he does. I just love the fact that he’s a competitor.’’
Still, this did not stop the New Orleans media from asking Payton if he preferred chicken and Andouille over seafood gumbo.
“Next question,” Payton said, breaking into a smile. “I don’t like seafood. I know where you’re going.”
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Youth is served: At kickoff, Jared Goff, 24, will be exactly 15 years and 262 days younger than Drew Brees, 40, a remarkable differential. Goff is the fifth-youngest quarterback to ever start an NFC title game, and his growth in his three years with the Rams is textbook development.
“I do believe that Jared Goff is going to win a Super Bowl, if not more, by the time his career is over,’’ said Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, who will call the game as an analyst for on Fox. “Maybe it’s this year. He’s been outstanding. He has made throws this year that I would put up against any throws that I’ve seen ever. Whether it was back when I was playing and some of the great quarterbacks that I had a chance to watch during that period, or as a broadcaster. I think he’s been just terrific.’’
Home cooking: The deadly duo of Brees and Payton are 6-0 in the playoffs when playing at home. Last week, the crowd was whipped into such a frenzy that the noise was directly responsible for two false-start penalties and two timeouts called by the Eagles because they could not hear well enough to get organized on offense.
“It was probably the loudest I’ve heard the dome,’’ said cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who thrived in the madness with two interceptions of Nick Foles. “We love that. We love the crowd being in the game with us. That helps give that extra push to get the job done.’’
Two to tango: Dealing with Todd Gurley is tough enough. Now opposing defenses have to worry about Gurley (115 rushing yards) and Rams newcomer C.J. Anderson (123 yards), a duo that ravaged the Cowboys last week as the Rams ran for a postseason franchise-record 273 yards.
“I think when you’ve got two dynamic running backs, you don’t have to worry about when you’re going to call runs,’’ said Saints linebacker Demario Davis, a 2012 Jets third-round draft pick. “They can call runs all game and don’t have to worry about somebody wearing down.’’
The Saints will have to stop the run without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week against the Eagles.
Sean Payton and Drew Brees do not lose at home this time of year. Escaping the Big Easy is not easy and often impossible. The Rams are the New Kids on the Block, and pulling this off would be quite a feat. In the end, Brees makes one more play than Goff, and the Saints go marching on.
Saints 31, Rams 28