There were times this season when a few NFL offenses, including those of the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams, made the game look easy, almost laughably so. The yards and points piled up at staggering rates. Opposing defenses seemed to have little chance. Some wondered whether the rules had been tweaked too far in favor of passers and pass-catchers.
But the calendar has turned and the postseason is underway, and things have gotten just a bit tougher for some of those revved-up offenses. It hasn’t been an outright struggle. But things have not been quite as carefree and simple as they were earlier in the season.
Now the Saints and Rams are about to open postseason play this weekend following opening-round playoff byes as the NFC’s top two seeds. The second-seeded Rams host the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday, and the top-seeded Saints welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to New Orleans on Sunday. They will try to get their offenses back to unstoppable.
It was a scoring-fest of an NFL season. The 11,952 points scored were the second most in a regular season; the 1,371 touchdowns were the most. The Kansas City Chiefs, the Rams and the Saints each averaged more than 30 points per game, giving the league three such teams in a season for only the fourth time in history.
But when league leaders were asked during the season whether the scoring was out of hand, they took a cautious approach and predicted that defenses would find ways to narrow the competitive gap.
“I think it’ll normalize itself as we go through the progression of the season,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said around the midway point of the regular season. “I do believe that some of the defenses — there are some great coordinators. They will adjust. I think as we start getting into that real playoff run, we’ll start seeing the points normalize itself.”
Vincent was right, at least to some degree, although it took a while. The Saints totaled 95 points in the final five games of the regular season, a modest average of 19 points per game. They had a 10-point outing in a late-November loss to the Cowboys and a 12-point performance in a mid-December triumph over the Carolina Panthers. The Rams closed the regular season by totaling 79 points in victories over the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. But before that came a two-game losing streak in which they managed a total of 29 points against the Chicago Bears and the Eagles.
The Saints’ issues may have stemmed, at least in part, from injuries that forced them to reshuffle their offensive line. Standout left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger were among those who missed time.
“They’re the heart and soul, you know,” quarterback Drew Brees said when he met with media members Wednesday. “Those guys set the tone. They set the tempo for every game. Obviously it begins and ends with them with everything that we do as an offense.”
But it may have been deeper than that. The Saints lack a true No. 2 wideout to complement top wide receiver Michael Thomas. That leaves Brees relying heavily in the passing game on Thomas and tailback Alvin Kamara.
“They’re so good because Brees is so precise and they’re so well coached by Sean [Payton],” a front office executive with one rival NFC team said. “You can’t cover Kamara at all, and Thomas is a tough matchup. But I do think they lack some depth in terms of playmakers. If you can put a little pressure on Brees and make him get rid of the ball a little quicker than he wants, I’m not sure the other guys they have can beat you. You want to force the ball toward those guys.”
In the Rams’ case, that NFC executive said, it’s all about the health of tailback Todd Gurley, who totaled only 76 rushing yards in the losses to the Bears and Eagles and then sat out the final two games of the regular season because of inflammation in his left knee.
“Forget about [quarterback Jared] Goff,” the executive said. “Forget about the receivers. That offense is built around the running back. He’s so good. It’s not just about the yards he gets. It’s about the threat of the run and what they can do off of that. That’s the key for them. They need him in there and they need him to be right.”
That’s what the Rams, with the aid of their bye week, hope is the case against the Cowboys.
“We’re about as healthy as you could ask to be going into the divisional round,” Coach Sean McVay said at a news conference. “I know we’ve certainly looked at it as a positive. It’s been a good chance for guys to kind of get refreshed, rejuvenated. And there’s a good buzz in the building this week building into Saturday night.”
A Rams-Saints matchup in the NFC championship game could be memorable. Those two teams played a 45-35 game, won by the Saints, in New Orleans in early November.
But first, they must win this weekend. For the Saints, that means getting back to their level of, say, mid-November, when they overwhelmed the Eagles by a 48-7 score at the Superdome. A repeat would put Brees and Payton a step closer to reaching another Super Bowl nine years after they led the Saints to a title.
"I always appreciate these moments,” Brees said. “But you never know how many more there are. So you just stay in the moment and enjoy it as much as possible.”