The instruction manual is there.
It was printed and embossed behind enemy lines, in some Dallas Cowboys’ sanctum, but it was made public for all to see.
It is the plan to put the brakes on the New Orleans Saints.
There’s no guarantee it will work for the Rams in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. It might require 469 miles of stopping distance, which is the interval between New Orleans and Atlanta’s Super Bowl site.
But it’s there, in a way it wasn’t there on the first Sunday in November, when the Saints ran off and left the Rams, 45-35.
That was the Rams’ first loss. At the time they hadn’t found anyone who could match them score for score. The Rams and Saints opened the game with four touchdowns in four possessions. Then Aaron Donald recovered a fumble by Mark Ingram, for the first service break.
But when fourth-and-four came up, Johnny Hekker tried a fake punt. He didn’t get there. The Rams missed a field goal and were intercepted in their next two trips. New Orleans turned those three laid eggs into a three-touchdown omelet, with beignets. It led 35-14.
The Rams scrambled to tie it, 35-35, with Jared Goff throwing touchdowns to Malcolm Brown and Cooper Kupp, both recent casualties. Then Drew Brees hit a bomb to Michael Thomas and it wound up 45-35.
Since then, both teams have been grounded by the inevitably of a 16-game NFL schedule. Both have grown from it. The Rams turned Dallas’ rush defense into a 273-yard treadmill Saturday, winning 30-22. The Saints leaned on their defense and a clock-eating offense to pursue and catch and beat the Eagles, 20-14, on Sunday, setting up the championship game that had always made the most sense.
The Saints first ran into turbulence on Nov. 29. They rolled into Dallas with a 41-point average in their previous five games. But on that night they had the ball nine times and scored one touchdown. They gained 179 yards, total, and lost, 13-10.
They have scored 30 or more in just one game since then. Two weeks after Dallas, the Saints scored no touchdowns in a 12-9 win at Carolina.
Defenses have realized that even though Thomas is the NFL’s most productive receiver, the Saints don’t beat you deep. And there is no percentage in chasing Brees, since he was sacked fewer times than anyone else in the NFC.
Since the Cowboys’ game, Brees has connected with a wide receiver for only two pass plays that exceed 25 yards. The book is to make them beat you slowly. Which, of course, they’re disciplined enough to do.
They have a prowling defense, particularly on the back end, and two quality runners. Alvin Kamara is the Bayou version of Todd Gurley. They also have refined their stealth bomber, former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, whose mischief has taken him to quarterback, tight end and wide receiver. Against the Eagles he ran a fake punt for a first down, and he threw a TD pass to Thomas that was called back. He also has blocked punts.
The Rams counter with C.J. Anderson, Denver’s best offensive player when it won the Super Bowl five years ago. They picked up Anderson when Gurley hurt his knee, and Anderson has left large welts on all first tacklers. He averaged seven yards a carry and nearly 150 yards a game as he finished up the regular season, and he shook off the Cowboys for 123 yards in 23 carries.
Imagine how different this NFL season might have been, especially in L.A., Chicago and Dallas, if Jon Gruden hadn’t decided that Anderson, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper weren’t “real Raiders.”
The weekend was a massive affirmation of the NFL’s regular season. If the Chargers hadn’t developed frying-pan hands in the opener against Kansas City, they might have played their way into a first-round bye. If Ty Montgomery hadn’t fumbled a kickoff return in his final act as a Green Bay Packer, the Rams might have played their way out of one.
All four teams who rested during Wild Card Weekend were winners on Saturday and Sunday. They went 4-0 with an average victory margin of 11.5. If NBA and MLB teams could figure out a viable “bye” system, their regular seasons might become urgent, too.
The Saints lost the first three home playoff games in their history but have won their past six, including 31-28 over the St. Louis Rams in 2000. The Superdome is dark, loud and unpredictable as the city itself, so the Rams can’t exactly say their fate is in their hands. But the blueprint is.
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