Nothing about the challenge came shrouded in mystery.
The high-powered New Orleans Saints sported the NFL’s most productive and explosive offense. Quarterback Drew Brees is on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And a two-pronged rushing attack had helped the Saints win eight games in a row.
For Rams defensive players, Sunday’s game at the Coliseum was an opportunity to show what they might lack in statistical pizazz, they make up for with grit.
The Rams gave up an early touchdown run, a late touchdown pass and did not force a turnover. But the defense got to Brees and led the Rams to a 26-20 victory before an estimated crowd of 60,000.
Jared Goff passed for two touchdowns and Greg Zuerlein kicked four field goals as the Rams improved to 8-3 and stayed atop the NFC West.
“There’s some games this year where we kind of realized we can play with anybody,” Goff said. “This is for sure one of them.”
The Rams bounced back from last week’s defeat at Minnesota to reassert themselves as a playoff contender.
“It was a big challenge for our team to show we are something to be reckoned with,” linebacker Robert Quinn said. “We’ve got a lot to prove still.”
The Rams travel to Arizona next week and then return home to play another NFC division leader, the Philadelphia Eagles. They then play consecutive road games at Seattle and Tennessee before finishing the season at home against the San Francisco 49ers.
“What we were pleased with as a whole was just the way we responded,” coach Sean McVay said.
The defense shouldered the responsibility against a Saints team that had not lost since Week 2 and was averaging 415.7 yards and 30.2 points a game.
The Rams limited the Saints to 346 yards and held them to 13 points for more than 58 minutes.
“We wanted to make our mark on the game,” linebacker Alec Ogletree said, “and I thought we did a pretty good job.”
A week ago at Minnesota, the Rams pressured but failed to sack Vikings quarterback Case Keenum in a 24-7 defeat. They did not want to make the same mistake against Brees.
“If you let him get going early,” Quinn said, “you know the type of chaos he can cause for a defense.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is sacked by Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam in the 3rd quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams quarterback Jared Goff and Saints quarterback Drew Brees embrace after the game.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams receiver Tavon Austin is tackled by Saints cornerback De’Vante Harris after a reception in the 3rd quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams Todd Gurley picks up yards against the Saints in the 4th quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams receiver Josh Reynolds catches a touchdown pass in front of Saints linebacker A.J. Klein in the 2nd quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree dives to tackle Saints receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a short gain.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Saints cornerback P.J. Williams intercepts the ball after after receiver Sammy Watkins bobbles the ball in the 4th quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams quarterback Jared Goff avoids a sack by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan in the 3rd quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams receiver Cooper Kupp picks up big yards after a reception against the Saints in the 2nd quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Saints quarterback Drew Brees fumbles the ball while being hit by Rams linebacker Robert Quinn in the 1st quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams Todd Gurley eludes the tackle of Saints cornerback De’Vante Harris for a big gain in the 2nd quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Rams receiver Sammy Watkins catches a touchdown pass as he is being tackled by Saints cornerback De’Vante Harris in the 1st quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Referee Jeff Seeman stretches before a game with the Rams and Saints.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
After the Rams took the lead on Goff’s five-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins in the first quarter, Aaron Donald and Quinn sacked Brees on consecutive plays.
“They got quite a few Pro Bowlers on that front that can rush the passer, do a lot of good things and wreak havoc,” Brees said.
The Rams, who gave up 171 yards rushing against the Vikings, allowed Saints running back Alvin Kamara to break loose for a 74-yard touchdown in the first quarter. But they limited him to 13 rushing yards the rest of the game, and stopped the Saints 10 out of 13 times on third down.
Brees completed 22 of 32 passes for 246 yards and a 15-yard touchdown to Kamara with 1:45 left, but could not engineer a comeback after the Rams pulled ahead 26-13 late in the fourth quarter.
Rams cornerback Kayvon Webster was one of several players who broke up passes and just missed intercepting others.
“We can adjust. ... We can fix what we didn’t execute last game, and I think we showed that.”
The offense also bounced back from last week’s one-touchdown performance against the Vikings. Goff completed 28 of 43 passes for 354 yards with one interception, his first since Week 7. With leading receiver Robert Woods sidelined by a shoulder injury, rookie Cooper Kupp had a team-best eight catches for 116 yards.
Watkins and rookie receiver Josh Reynolds caught touchdown passes. Watkins also secured the victory when he grabbed the ball on an onside kick after the Saints pulled within 26-20.
The Rams move on with a victory over a top team on their resume.
“There’s a difference between being 7-4 and 8-3, especially against a team like this,” Goff said. “It was a game that [was] not necessarily a must-win, but a game that’s going to give us a lot moving forward and a lot of confidence.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein