After suffering an early-November loss to the New Orleans Saints, several Rams players said they were relieved that the pressure to complete a perfect season was over.
The Rams went on to finish 13-3, and they defeated the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional playoff game.
Now, the Rams are embracing the pressure they will be under when they return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to play the Saints on Sunday in the NFC championship game. The winner advances to the Super Bowl to play either the Kansas City Chiefs or the New England Patriots.
Rams receiver Brandin Cooks has recent experience preparing for a conference title game. Last season, he played on a Patriots team that advanced to the Super Bowl.
“Just continue to remind yourself to take it one day at time like you did all season,” Cooks said. “Don’t try to change anything and do anything out of the ordinary.”
The Rams face a Saints team that also finished 13-3, and defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in a divisional game.
The rematch between the Rams and the Saints comes nearly 2½ months after the Saints won 45-35 in Week 9. The Rams erased a 21-point second-quarter deficit, but gave up a long touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees to receiver Michael Thomas that sealed the Saints’ victory.
The Rams left New Orleans that night believing they would see the Saints again in the playoffs. Apparently, the Saints saw it the same way.
“You could kind of feel it, that that could be the NFC championship game if we both handled our business,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said Monday. “We both handled our business, and here we go again.”
Saints coach Sean Payton won a Super Bowl in the 2009 season, but this is the first time since that he has guided a team to the NFC championship game.
The Saints feature Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader who turns 40 on Tuesday.
Brees passed for 32 touchdowns, with only five interceptions, in 15 games for a team that averaged 31.5 points a game. He was sacked only 17 times.
In the Saints’ 20-14 playoff victory over the Eagles, Brees led them back from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit. He completed 28 of 38 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception.
The Saints rely heavily on running back Alvin Kamara, the 2017 offensive rookie of the year. Kamara ran for 14 touchdowns and caught four touchdown passes during the season.
Against the Rams, Brees passed for 346 yards and four touchdowns. Kamara ran for two touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass. And receiver Michael Thomas caught 12 passes for 211 yards, including the game-clinching 72-yard touchdown.
Thomas, who played at Woodland Hills Taft High, caught a league-best 125 passes during the season, and had 12 receptions for 171 yards and a touchdown in the playoff victory over the Eagles.
“They’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback and they got an elite running back, and they’ve got a great system,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
Rams cornerback Aqib Talib did not play in the November game against the Saints because he was recovering from an ankle injury. Thomas took advantage of the depleted secondary — most notably cornerback Marcus Peters — on his way to a team record for yards receiving in a game.
Talib returned for the last five games of the regular season, so the Rams will be at full strength against Brees, Thomas and a receiver corps that also includes Ted Ginn, who did not play against the Rams because he was on injured reserve.
“It's a big difference,” McVay said of Talib’s impact. “Just having him out there, his veteran presence … his ability to communicate. … I think that will enable us to do some different things coverage-wise — be a little bit more flexible.”
The Saints defense suffered a blow Monday, when results from an MRI exam reportedly confirmed that defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury.
A unit that gave up only 80.2 yards rushing per game — second in the NFL — and only 49 yards rushing against the Eagles now must try to stop Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson without one of its top players.
Anderson did not join the Rams until late December. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games.
Saints end Cameron Jordan has 12 sacks, and linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Marshon Lattimore are other defensive standouts.