LOS ANGELES — Jared Goff realized the upstart Los Angeles Rams faced a test of their playoff worthiness when the New Orleans Saints entered the Coliseum on an eight-game winning streak.
Sure, the Rams have been one of the NFL’s most pleasant surprises under rookie coach Sean McVay. But starting with last week’s loss at Minnesota, they’re in a stretch of difficult games against fellow NFC contenders that should prove whether this remarkable turnaround in LA is for real.
Faced with the daunting challenge presented by Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the Saints, the Rams didn’t flinch in a 26-20 victory Sunday.
“It was a big win for us,” said Goff, who passed for 354 yards and two touchdowns. “There’s a difference between going 7-4 and 8-3, especially against a team like this. Not necessarily a must-win, but a game that’s going to give us a lot moving forward.”
For the first time since 2006, the Rams (8-3) are guaranteed to finish the regular season without a losing record. With five wins in their last six games, they’ve already doubled their win total from their relocation season in 2016.
Those are big-picture achievements by a team that prefers to stay focused on the incremental improvement demonstrated by an all-around solid effort against the Saints (8-3), who hadn’t lost since Sept. 17. New Orleans has a longer history of success and the advantage of the tested Brees, but Goff more than held his own against Brees while under pressure from Cameron Jordan and the Saints’ tough defense.
“There were some games this year where we realized we could play with anybody,” Goff said. “This was, for sure, one of them.”
Sammy Watkins and rookie Josh Reynolds caught scoring passes from Goff in an offense that responded well to the absence of leading receiver Robert Woods, who has a shoulder injury. Todd Gurley had 74 yards rushing and 54 yards receiving, even while McVay’s play-calling kept the ball out of his hands for long stretches.
And coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense was largely excellent despite failing to force a turnover. The Saints got 157 of their 346 yards in the fourth quarter, and Los Angeles held Brees to 246 yards passing — just 96 in the first three quarters.
Everything about the game bore scant resemblance to the clubs’ meeting last season, when the Saints embarrassed the Rams with a 49-21 blowout in New Orleans.
“You know the good thing about last year? It’s last year,” Rams linebacker Robert Quinn said. “We don’t think about it. We have a whole new coaching staff and a whole new team. We don’t look in the past to what they did to a different team.”
The Rams limited every key Saints contributor except Alvin Kamara, who had a brilliant 74-yard touchdown run among his 188 total yards. The rookie also caught Brees’ TD pass with 1:45 to play.
“You look at a couple of plays that Kamara made, and you just say, ‘Hats off to him,'” McVay said. “He’s a special player.”
One week after rallying from 15 points down late in the fourth quarter to beat Washington in overtime, the Saints fell behind on the opening drive and never caught up. New Orleans struggled to stop Goff’s passing game with its top two cornerbacks sidelined by injuries, and the Rams steadily moved the ball to win a meeting between two of the NFL’s top three highest-scoring teams.
“We never found a good rhythm of run-pass,” Brees said. “It just felt like everything was really tough sledding. The minute we’d get something going, there would be a penalty that would set us back, and then we’d be off the field.”
The Rams are steaming toward their first playoff berth since 2004 and their first winning season since 2003, but they’ve still got ample work in front of them, starting with a visit to NFC West rival Arizona next weekend. Just two home games remain on their schedule, including a visit from NFL-leading Philadelphia in two weeks.
GREG THE LEG
NFL scoring leader Greg Zuerlein kicked four field goals for the Rams, giving him 127 points in 11 games this season. He also missed a 63-yard attempt into the wind at the halftime gun, but McVay didn’t regret trying it: “More times than not, he’s going to hit that kick.”