NFC Championship Game Expert Handicapping: Keys and Distractions
The NFC Championship Game is a very intriguing battle even if it isn't exactly surprising - this is exactly the game it seemed like we would be getting since at least the beginning of November. It really should be fun - the two best offenses in the NFC with the two best point differentials. Both teams are very well coached, but the battle of the Seans is still a study in contrasts - when Payton started coaching the Saints, McVay was a junior in college playing wide receiver at Miami of Ohio - where Payton was offensive coordinator in 1994 and 1995 when McVay was in elementary school. Now they come together in New Orleans for an epic and crucial battle, with Payton and the Saints favored by 3.5 points - barely more than the home-field advantage. Our job here is simple - to look at a couple of the biggest keys for this game and at a factor that will get too much discussion and could be a distraction for bettors if they aren't careful.
The Saints' secondary: When the Rams are rolling on offense, their opponents are in serious trouble - even one as offensively competent as the Saints. New Orleans needs to be able to contain that offense as well as they can. The key for that is going to be, as much as any single play, Eli Apple. Apple was a midseason addition, and he has been really big for the Saints after having his share of problems for the Giants. Before he came along, the Saints had to play a lot of zone -- which the Rams can, and often do, torch. Down the stretch, though, teams showed that you can cause the Rams some issues by playing man, doubling up a receiver, and focusing on Todd Gurley. Apple is very good at coverage and has been reborn in New Orleans. If he can have a big day, then it opens up the options for New Orleans to scheme creatively and try to gain the edge they will need. The better he is, the more effective Marshon Lattimore can be because the more risks he can afford to take. Against the Eagles, Lattimore had complete freedom because Apple was dialed in, and it led to two big picks for the second-year star. The Rams will likely know that this will be the approach and will be working on finding ways to counter it, but if Apple is on his game it will still have a good chance of being fairly effective.
The Rams up front: When the Rams win, their offensive line is on point. When the line struggles, the team struggles. It's as simple as that. Last year in the playoffs the Rams' line, which had been very good most of the year, didn't show up. It was a serious problem. But against the Cowboys last week the line had a brilliant game, and the Rams had two 100-yard rushers, totally dominated on the ground, and controlled the pace of the game as a result. If the line is dialed in then the offense has time, and with the weapons and creativity that this L.A. offense has, time is exactly what you don't want them to have if you are playing against them. But if Jared Goff doesn't have the time he would like, then he looks like a shockingly ordinary quarterback. Shockingly ordinary quarterbacks don't often measure up well against a guy like Drew Brees in crunch time. We saw how bad it can get for the Rams when the line is lousy when they played the Bears in their 13th game of the year. The line did nothing to contain the attacks of the Bears, and as a result Goff threw four ugly picks, the team ran for just 52 yards, and Chicago won surprisingly easily even though Mitch Trubisky didn't exactly put up a Pro Bowl-worthy performance himself. If the Rams' big men show up in the trenches ready for war, then there is no reason they can't win here. But they have to show up.
Home field is a major advantage - but only maybe: The narrative from the media and the general public is going to be clear here - playing this game in New Orleans is very good news for one team, and it isn't the Rams. The Superdome is a very tough place to play at the best of times, and the narrative will be that that is amplified by a factor of 10 in the playoffs. The truth isn't quite that clear, though. First, the Saints were a solid 6-2 at home, so they were good, but not great - all of the other three playoff teams had better home records. In fact, the Saints had a better record on the road than at home this year. And the Rams are 6-2 on the road, so they aren't afraid of travelling, and the dome makes them even more comfortable because weather won't be a factor. Second, people will point to the fact that Drew Brees is an impressive 6-0 at home in the playoffs and he has thrown 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions in those games. While that is both true and impressive, it's also true that he is coming off a home playoff game in which he was solid but far from perfect. He didn't dominate a Philadelphia team that had some issues, and he threw an interception he'd love to have back. He is lining up now against an offense that is very strong and coming off an excellent game after a couple of lesser ones down the stretch. This game could be a shootout, and if Brees replicates his last game he will not necessarily match up well in a shootout. It's too simple, and not true, to say that Brees is the reason the Philly game was as close as it was. But he certainly has had better playoff games.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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