The New Orleans Saints can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, though they may have their goals set higher than playoff eligibility. They are technically still in the running for the NFC's No. 1 overall seed, one game back from the 11-2 Seattle Seahawks. Technically, the Saints will have to make up two games due to their Week 13 loss to Seattle, but with three games left there is still a chance they can climb the standings.
The Rams won't be playing for anything other than pride. At 5-8 overall, they have been mathematically eliminated from the postseason, and are reeling off a 20-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals. They have played above expectations before, however, beating the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears in consecutive weeks, and the Saints are capable of a stinker as evidenced by a midseason loss to the New York Jets.
Perhaps the Rams will be motivated by the opportunity to play spoiler to the Saints' 1-seed hopes.
Meet the Rams
Despite a 5-8 record, the Rams should be encouraged by how they've played in a few key areas, particularly on defense. The rush defense is relinquishing just 3.9 yards per carry despite facing 361 carries so far this season. They have been excellent rushing the passer, with a 8.4 percent sack rate that ranks fourth in the NFL. Defensive end Robert Quinn is second in the NFL with 13 sacks so far this season.
The offense has been a relative mess, however. The Rams rank just 27th in the NFL in total offense. While Zac Stacy has emerged as a viable starting running back, the passing game hasn't given him much support. Kellen Clemens is completing 52.9 percent of his passes since taking over for the injured Sam Bradford, and has thrown just five touchdowns to five interceptions in seven games.
Meet the Saints
The Saints are arguably the NFL's most complete team. At least, they are the only team in the NFL that ranks in the top 10 in both total offense and total defense through 13 games. The fact that the defense has been as good as it has is probably the most impressive aspect of this year's Saints. Coming off a historically bad 2012 season, Rob Ryan has turned the Saints' defense into one of the league's most fearsome units. They rank No. 1 in the NFL with a 9.2 percent sack rate, and have one the league's best pass defenses giving up 199 yards per game at 6.8 yards per pass.
The Rams could have success on the ground, however. The Saints give up 4.7 yards per carry when opponents choose to run. Fortunately for New Orleans, opponents have been unable to run often thanks to the healthy leads created by a potent offense. Drew Brees may have 5,000 yards and 40 touchdown passes before the regular season is over. He may also have his lowest interception total since 2004.
Local Takes: Rams
The Rams defense, now coordinated by former Lions secondary and third down package coach Tim Walton, allowed the Cardinals to convert 57.14 percent of their third downs. Carson Palmer did most of the damage on third downs, along with his receivers that nobody in the Rams secondary seemed able to stop.
Palmer was 10-for-12 with 114 yards on third downs. All but three of his completions on third down resulted in a new set of downs. All together, the Rams allowed the Cardinals to convert eight of 14 third down attempts. It was their second worst third down performance of the season, after allowing the Bears to convert 60 percent of their third downs two weeks ago.
Local Takes: Saints
Despite letting Carolina control the ball for five more minutes on Sunday than the Saints did, New Orleans thoroughly manhandled the Panthers. After getting off to a slow start, punting after only three plays on their first possession, the Saints racked up more yards in the first half than they managed in Seattle a week prior. The three first-half touchdowns largely secured the win before the break, and Sean Payton's squad seemed to focus on trying to add some more passing yards to their stats in the second half.
While the Saints would definitely be better off if they did not require a possession or more to get in gear for every game, the level of play which they displayed in the first half could take them deep into the postseason.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Really hope Les Snead offers Washington's first-round pick back to them this year ... for another boat load of picks— TurfShowTimes (@TurfShowTimes) December 11, 2013
@nwagoner -- Rams beat writer
Add this to your list of how penalties hurting Rams. They've allowed 38 first downs by penalty this year, the most in the league.— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) December 9, 2013
@LarryHolder -- Saints beat writer
Thieving from a certain former colleague on this one. Who does Jimmy Sexton make more money for: Nick Saban or Jimmy Graham?— Larry Holder (@LarryHolder) December 11, 2013
The Rams don't have any sort of discernible home field advantage. No surprise when at least half the seats in the Dome are filled with the other team's fans and another quarter of those seats are empty. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald embarrassed the Rams secondary last week. The Rams are only allowing an average of 45 yards per game to tight ends, but Jimmy Graham isn't Drew Brees' only option in the passing game.
The pick: Saints
The Saints opened the week as 4.5-point favorites, and the spread has become even wider since according to OddsShark.