The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saints and Rams show off the best the NFL has to offer

Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas had 12 catches for 211 yards against the Rams.
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas had 12 catches for 211 yards against the Rams. (Bill Feig/AP)
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NEW ORLEANS — An NFL season that has brimmed with a smorgasbord of sparkle found itself a capstone Sunday in the Superdome. If the NFL product has come into question for various reasons, here came a hilt of product development. The Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints got together and lent a slew of treats with their highbrow skills. Eyeballs luxuriated.

Punters barely played, which is nothing against punters. Possibilities abounded, including one where Drew Brees went out to catch a pass — he didn’t get open — and one where a punter lumbered on a Rams fake field goal attempt. (He didn’t make it, and he also didn’t punt until the fourth quarter.) By the time the Saints had gone to 7-1 and left the Rams at 8-1 with New Orleans’s 45-35 win, some realities had hardened: The Saints really have stormed forth from when Tampa Bay ruined their opener so alarmingly at the time, the Rams possess the stomach to reach 35-35 after they have trailed 35-14, as happened Sunday, and the participants had a goose bump of a time.

“My upbringing, where I came from, those are the games you live for,” said Michael Thomas, the New Orleans wide receiver whose 72-yard touchdown catch with 3:52 left made the place literally shake. “That’s how I like. I like the big stage. I don’t like the quiet games where you’re expected to win. I like being the underdog and going and taking stock. It makes the game more fun, makes it more intense, adds more flavor to it and makes everybody honest.”

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Honestly, he had just caught 12 passes for 211 yards, breaking a Saints record by Wes Chandler that stood for 39 years. Then again, this game felt bound to yield something like that. From the get-go, when the Saints went 75 yards on 10 plays, then the Rams went 71 on six, then the Saints went 75 on eight, then the Rams went 75 on six, the game felt like state-of-the-art American football, even if New Orleans Coach Sean Payton likened it to the three-down Canadian Football League, where first and second down matter intensively.

A festival of geometric wonder played with seemingly every angle, the game pitted a 54-year-old coach whose brain stirs geekily with football plays against a 32-year-old coach whose brain stirs geekily with football plays, all of which is about as 2018 as it gets. “Can’t wait to go back, look at this film, figure out what we can do to be better,” said that 32-year-old coach, the Rams’ Sean McVay.

He could have stopped that statement at the word “film,” and all 73,086 in attendance might have nodded.

Both teams’ big dreams remained rational. The idea of a daydream season for Brees at 39 remained plausible. The idea of Brees at 39 and the Rams’ Jared Goff at 24 proved sellable. If they meet in an NFC championship game, that would seem relishable, seeing how they combined for 53-for-76 passing for 737 yards and seven touchdowns, with Brees at 25 for 36 for 346 yards and four, and Goff at 28 for 40 for 391 yards and three. “I just think that his command and his overall presence, you can see why he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” McVay said of Brees.

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In the NFL’s first meeting in Week 9 or later between two teams averaging 33 or more points — Saints 33.4, Rams 33.0 — the Rams wound up getting 483 total yards, and the Saints wound up inching past that near the end for 487. When a defender, Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone, made a key interception 59 seconds to halftime, it’s as if he stood up for all defenders to say, We’re still here, too. If this was football as it’s played these days, it’s football with gasps.

A fourth-and-one in the first quarter might not seem a traditional time to have Brees flip it to the Saints’ wildly athletic handyman, Taysom Hill, then have Hill look to throw for Brees before seeing a lane and running for a first down, but time has marched on, and that’s what happened. A third-and-one while trailing 35-27 in the fourth might not seem a traditional time to have Goff fake and step back with a threat of excessive cuteness, then find Cooper Kupp underneath, but time has marched on, just as Kupp marched up the left sideline for a 41-yard touchdown that helped tie the game.

On and on they went, except they could have gone on for hours more without ceasing to entertain. “You’re constantly working off pictures from the last series,” Payton said — “highlighting, crossing off [plays], that kind of thing.” All the while, Brees felt that edging the Rams would require “near-perfect” form, all the way until the four-minute mark when he read Thomas on the left with one man in front and the safeties tilting elsewhere, and lofted the 72-yarder that wrought bedlam.

So Brees wound up reeling off the highbrow stats such as “[58] percent on third downs, that’s huge,” and “5 for 5 [for touchdowns] in the red zone, that’s huge,” and “running the football, [141] yards rushing, that’s huge.”

Said Alvin Kamara, who rushed for 82 yards and caught four integral passes for 34, “When we operate how I know we can operate, it’s hard to do anything with us.”

That merit went for the Saints, the Rams and the product.

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