November 1, 2018 / 4:33 PM / 11 days ago

Saints host Rams in battle of NFC heavyweights

Some are calling it a preview of the NFC Championship Game, and with good reason.

FILE PHOTO: Oct 28, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton looks on during the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

When the Los Angeles Rams put their 8-0 record on the line Sunday against the 6-1 New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, both teams realize how important this head-to-head clash could be by the end of December, when the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs is determined.

But Saints coach Sean Payton, whose team has won six in a row, is trying to focus on what lies directly in front of him — a Rams team under coach Sean McVay that has virtually no weaknesses.

“When you see a team coming in here unbeaten, and you know they are in the NFC, you recognize the significance of the game,” Payton said.

Left tackle Terron Armstead said the Saints are trying to mentally prepare themselves for a difficult upcoming schedule that includes the Bengals, Eagles, Panthers (twice) and Steelers.

“We’ve got a good, strong run of (opponents) right now that feel like they can be playing in late December and January,” Armstead said. “We’re trying to take it one game at a time and not looking forward to any other opponents.”

The Rams defeated Green Bay 29-27 last week to keep their record clean, and they have done it with incredible balance. Running back Todd Gurley is an MVP candidate who leads the NFL in rushing yards (800) and yards from scrimmage (1,151).

“When you put that tape on, it’s Gurley from 28 yards, here is Gurley from 30 yards, here’s Gurley catching a screen for a touchdown,” Payton said.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald also leads the NFL with 10 sacks, the only interior lineman in the top 10 in that category. The Rams added some pass-rush help on the outside this week with the trade-deadline acquisition of outside linebacker Dante Fowler from Jacksonville.

McVay said Fowler is expected to play even though he lacks experience in the Rams’ 3-4.

“As quickly as we can get him up to speed will be how much we will be able to utilize him, but we’re expecting him to be ready,” McVay said.

Fowler has 2.0 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season.

“I want to show guys that I’m not just an elite pass rusher (but) that I’m a full-down player — first down, second down — that I’m very smart and help my defense achieve their goals,” Fowler said.

The Rams snapped an eight-game Saints’ winning streak last season with a 26-20 victory in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Jared Goff passed for 354 yards and two touchdowns, while Saints quarterback Drew Brees was held to 246 yards passing.

The Rams expect to regain the services of receiver Cooper Kupp, who missed the last two games with a knee injury. Kupp has caught 30 passes for 438 yards and five touchdowns in six games.

The Saints likely will be without rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport, who suffered a toe injury in last week’s 30-20 victory over Minnesota while recording two sacks.

—Field Level Media

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