NFL round-up: What are the implications of Rams’ first loss?

Texans beat Broncos in game of the week as Rams now look to Seahawks next week

Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints breaks a tackle against John Johnson III of the Los Angeles Rams at the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints breaks a tackle against John Johnson III of the Los Angeles Rams at the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

 

Week nine’s main takeaway: Assessing the play-off implications of Saints handing Rams first loss of the season

Leading up to the Saints’ 45-35 victory against the Rams on Sunday, there was talk of LA’s newest franchise going undefeated and flying into the playoffs as the NFC’s No1 seed.

In this scenario, pundits might predict the Rams – led by a precocious second-year head coach, a menacing defensive line and the NFL’s leading attack - to coast through the NFC play-offs with home-field advantage and face the Patriots or the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, squaring off in an attack-heavy, made-for-television battle.

This outcome is still entirely possible.

The Patriots and Chiefs held up their ends of the bargain with convincing wins on Sunday, and appear locked in as favourites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.

But LA’s loss to Sean Payton’s squad means the Saints (7-1, bye completed in week six) and Rams (8-1, week 12 bye) sit virtually tied atop the NFC conference standings heading into week 10, with a possible end-of-season playoff tiebreaker determining home-field advantage now in favour of New Orleans.

While weighing the implications of a playoff tiebreaker this early in the season could be perceived as premature and moot, home field’s impact cannot be taken for granted in the NFC.

Not since the No 4-seeded Giants won the 2012 Super Bowl – a playoff journey that required gritty road wins against the Packers and 49ers – has a team seeded lower than two represented the NFC in the NFL’s biggest game.

In the last three NFC play-off matchups between No.1 and No.2 seeds, the home team has outscored the away team, 115-44, a particularly convincing statistic for NFL front offices that value earning the advantage throughout the playoffs (hint: they all do).

If Sunday’s match in New Orleans was any indication, a playoff meeting between the two teams will be characterised by high-flying attacks and opportunistic defences.

New Orleans began Sunday’s match with a fluid 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara.

The two teams traded touchdowns on the next three drives, resulting in a 14-14 tie before a Saints fumble and an LA turnover on downs suspended the scoring clinic.

Two consecutive Drew Brees touchdown passes and a Greg Zuerlein missed field goal followed, and the Saints were up 28-14 heading into what looked like was going to be the last drive of the first half.

Hoping to score before halftime, the Rams attack came out aggressive, but Jared Goff’s first pass of the drive was intercepted by New Orleans linebacker Alex Anzalone, marking a turning point in the match.

Anzalone’s interception set the Saints up for another touchdown, and they went into halftime with a commanding 35-17 lead after a last second Rams field goal ended the half.

LA would not go away that easily, however.

The Rams came roaring back to begin the third quarter, scoring 18 unanswered second-half points capped by a 41-yard Goff touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp with 9:48 to play.

Late defensive stops and a 54-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz gave New Orleans a late lead, but it was a 72-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Thomas that sealed the game for the Saints.

Thomas celebrated the catch by reaching into the padding of the goal post to reveal a hidden flip phone, holding it to his ear in an apparent tribute to former New Orleans wide receiver, Joe Horn.

Drew Brees finished with four touchdowns and almost 350 yards passing, 211 of which went to Thomas, a personal best for the receiver. Alvin Kamara added 116 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns.

New Orleans’ defence contained star Rams running back Todd Gurley, who finished with 79 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Goff threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns to go along with his interception.

The two teams face difficult schedules moving forward, with the Saints set to face the Panthers (twice), Bengals, Eagles, Falcons, Cowboys and Steelers during the second half of the season.

LA still have the playoff-contending Seahawks, Eagles, Bears and Chiefs left on their schedule.

If the two teams finish the season tied atop the NFC standings and face off in New Orleans during the playoffs, Sunday’s match will carry far greater consequence than Rams fans care to acknowledge.

And if the Saints win that playoff match, weighing the implications of a playoff tiebreaker during week nine might not seem as premature or moot as it does today.

Game of the weekend: Texans defeat Broncos, 19-17

Trailing 17-16 heading into the fourth quarter, the Houston Texans had been stymied throughout Sunday’s match, facing a staunch Denver defence led by linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

A 37-yard field goal by Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn proved the only scoring necessary in the match’s final quarter, which ended in heartbreak for Denver.

Defensive end Christian Covington, wide receiver Sammie Coates, and linebacker Josh Keyes of the Houston Texans celebrate their win over the Broncos. Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Defensive end Christian Covington, wide receiver Sammie Coates, and linebacker Josh Keyes of the Houston Texans celebrate their win over the Broncos. Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Attempting his third field goal of the match, Broncos kicker Brandon McManus missed wide right on a 51-yard attempt with time expiring to give the Texans their sixth straight victory.

The Texans are now 6-3 and have a commanding lead in the downtrodden AFC South, where the Titans, Jaguars and Colts all sit three games behind Houston in the win column.

Play of the weekend: Julio Jones catches his first touchdown since November 26th, 2017

The Falcons’ victory was all but sealed before Julio Jones caught a screen pass, ran 35 yards and wrestled away from a Redskins defender to reach the goal line for his first score of the season.

Jones’ teammates celebrated the garbage time score in Sunday’s 38-14 blowout against Washington as if it were a match-winner, knowing the questions Jones – one of the best receivers in football – has faced from members of the media about his scoring output (or lack thereof) throughout the past two seasons.

Next week’s key matchup: Seahawks at Rams

The Rams (8-1) will look to avenge their first loss of the season with a victory over the division-rival Seattle Seahawks (4-4), who hope to remain in contention in a crowded NFC play-off picture. The two teams faced off during week five in Seattle, where LA launched a seven-point, fourth-quarter comeback to win, 33-31.

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