He has played in three NFL conference championship games, making cornerback Aqib Talib the most experienced Rams player in the situation at hand.
Talib lost twice with the New England Patriots. He won once with the Denver Broncos – and went on to win a Super Bowl title.
So the Rams will be looking to Talib on Sunday when they play the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The winner advances to play the Kansas City Chiefs or the Patriots in the Feb. 3 Super Bowl at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“He’s our vet,” Rams safety John Johnson said of Talib, adding, “He knows everything.”
Talib, an 11th-year pro, did not play in the Rams’ 45-35 loss to the Saints at the Superdome on Nov. 4 because he was recovering from ankle surgery.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader, torched the Rams for 346 yards passing and four touchdowns, including a game-clinching 72-yard strike to receiver Michael Thomas, who caught 12 passes for a team-record 211 yards.
Talib, 32, returned to the lineup four weeks later, and he has helped solidify a defense that neutralized the Dallas Cowboys in last week’s 30-22 divisional-round victory.
In that game, Johnson said Talib called out a play before the Cowboys executed it.
“Before they broke the huddle, he called out exactly what they were going to do and it happened,” Johnson said of a run by Dak Prescott on a fourth-and-one play in the fourth quarter.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib intercepted one pass this season, increasing his career total to 35. He is still looking for his first postseason interception.
But his value goes beyond his ability to pick off passes.
“There’s a guy with a ton of playoff experience,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s been in the postseason, he’s an extremely smart player.”
Neither Talib nor Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips indicated this week that Talib would line up against the 6-3, 212-pound Thomas, but that is the expectation. Thomas led the NFL with 125 catches and had 12 for 171 yards and a touchdown in the Saints’ 20-14 divisional-round victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Anytime you’re a receiver and you got a Hall of Fame quarterback, that's going to take you to the next level, man,” Talib said of Thomas. “Then he's big, he's fast, he's got great hands, great body control.”
Cornerback Marcus Peters, who got burned by Thomas for the long touchdown in November, welcomes the help.
“We all know they are going to feed him the ball,” Peters said, adding, “We get Aqib back this time. I got an extra person out there with me.”
That could make a difference for a Rams team that in November trailed the Saints by 21 points in the second quarter before coming back to tie the score in the fourth. The Rams eventually lost, but players anticipated that they would get another shot at the Saints.
“This is what you wanted,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said, adding, “They got us the first time and what better stage to do it now.”
Talib is not the only important Rams player the Saints did not face in November.
About a month and a half after that game, the Rams signed running back C.J. Anderson. The veteran rushed for 167 and 132 yards while star Todd Gurley was sidelined because of a left knee injury.
Last week against the Cowboys, with the help of a line that opened gaping holes, Anderson and Gurley each rushed for more than 100 yards. It marked the first time since 1997 that two backs from the same team eclipsed 100 yards in a playoff game.
The line also gave up no sacks, a performance quarterback Jared Goff would welcome Sunday.
Goff passed for 391 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception, in the first game against the Saints. He is not making any major changes for the rematch.
“Take care of the football, distribute the ball, be smart with it and win,” he said.
Said receiver Robert Woods: “Full confidence in Jared, full confidence in this offense, in this team. Really, no question marks should be held on this team on Sunday.”
There were questions about the Rams in December after a lackluster victory on the road against the Detroit Lions and losses to the Chicago Bears and the Eagles. But they closed the season with victories against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers before defeating the Cowboys and advancing to the conference championship game.
“We had a little bit of a lull there where everybody was ready to press the panic button, except for everybody” in the Rams’ organization, coach Sean McVay said.
Now they get another shot at the Saints. And a chance to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season.
The formula for success is simple, according to Talib.