From the Stands: Rams recent win over Saints big for playoff standings

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26: Sammy Watkins
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26: Sammy Watkins /

It wasn’t a “must-win” game for the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12, but it was a game that had playoff ramifications. And the Los Angeles fans were there to help.

The stakes were high, even for the 7-3 Los Angeles Rams heading into Week 12. They’d still be in the playoffs, but a loss to the New Orleans Saints would move the Seattle Seahawks to the top of the NFC West because of the Rams’ loss to the Hawks earlier in the season. A win would keep the Rams in first, even if Seattle won their game (which they did). But also at stake was seeding for the playoffs, as with a win, the Rams would move up to the No. 3 seed, with a tiebreaker over the Saints, if needed later.

Moreover, they were without their leading receiver, Robert Woods, due to a shoulder injury. And the Saints had a leading, two-headed rushing attack that had run them to eight-straight wins.

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The morning clouds and mist had cleared to a sunny, bright, 72 degree Southern California day. The tailgaters were out in full force, more so than all season, and more had arrived earlier than usual. A decent number of Saints fans were also there, friendly, with some good-natured trash-talk here and there. Some were the local cadre—either from New Orleans or some other connection. Others had traveled to the game from Louisiana.

Inside the Coliseum, it was clear that this was a big game. While Los Angeles crowds are notoriously late, by the time the game was well underway, the crowd was the largest so far—the Rams had announced 62,006 tickets sold, and close to that number were in the bowl. Still, 60,000 in a stadium intended for 100,000 isn’t a good look for the NFL. But most fans appreciate the cap at 65,000—while it doesn’t matter in the bowl, the concourse was almost unnavigable during the games with 75,000-90,000 in attendance at the beginning of 2016.

As the Rams drove down for their first score, the crowd noise made up for the bad optics, as the stadium erupted as Jared Goff hit Sammy Watkins on a slant for the touchdown. Then, with the Rams on defense, almost every third down was as loud as it’s been all year. This continued through the whole game, turning to yells of frustration at missed plays, Tavon Austin’s frequent inability to get in the open with the ball, and pointless penalties.

The Saints fans held their own. There was a good contingent behind the visitor bench, with other groups spread out around the stadium.

By halftime, the Rams were leading 17-10, but it had been a tough slog. Though missing their two starting cornerbacks, the Saints’ defensive line did an excellent job, putting pressure on Goff with four sacks, even flustering the ever-reliable Andrew Whitworth into a holding penalty. But the Rams had held Drew Brees to 84 passing yards in the first half (246 total), and the vaunted running game to 25 yards if one leaves out the single 74-yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara in the first quarter. The Rams often allow one of these long runs the first half.

True to form, the Rams allowed no scores in the third quarter, but were able to add one field goal each in the third and fourth quarter. The game got exciting when, near the end, Wade Phillips’ defense played Cover 2 a little too loosely, allowing Brees to perform his magic and drive down the field to make the score 26-20 with 1:45 left in the game.

Rams fans tensed up, recalling so many games over the last decade lost just like this, in the final minutes, when the defense was too tired, the offense couldn’t run the clock, and someone would make a mistake or a penalty. But this is a different team, and on the ensuing onside kick, with Saints and Rams fans both in full-throated frenzy, Cooper caught the ball and downed it, leaving the Rams to run the victory formation and end the game.

Related Story: Game Recap: Rams get a big win over the Saints 26-20

With this win, the Rams are almost assured a playoff spot. The offense is ranked fourth overall, Goff is the sixth-ranked passer, and Todd Gurley has the most yards from scrimmage and the most touchdowns in the league. The defense, while allowing a lot of rushing yard (most in the first half), have been stingy elsewhere.

One overlooked statistic from the game shows the contribution of the special teams: there were no runbacks of either kickoffs or punts by the Saints. Zero. For the Rams, Pharoh Cooper had four kick returns for 110 years and three punts returns for 59 yards.

The next home game is against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 10, which should prove to be more difficult than the Saints. The Seahawks in Seattle will be another tough game, but the rest should be victories for the Rams. If so, they will end the season with an 11-5 record, and likely win a playoff spot for the first time since 2004, and the first time in Los Angeles since 1989.