NFL Preview - New Orleans (10-3) at St. Louis (5-8)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - A victory by the New Orleans Saints this weekend won't give them the NFC South title they are battling for, but it would punch their ticket to the postseason.
The Saints can clinch a playoff spot this Sunday with a victory over the hosting St. Louis Rams and keep their claim on first place in the division after moving a game past Carolina with last weekend's 31-13 home win over the Panthers.
The statement victory snapped Carolina's eight-game win streak and moved New Orleans to 10-3 on the season. It also put the Saints in the driver's seat for a division title as they visit the Panthers next weekend following the road game versus the Rams.
It was a milestone day for quarterback Drew Brees, who picked apart Carolina's top-ranked defense. He threw four touchdown passes -- three during a 21-0 second quarter -- and ended with 313 passing yards on 30-of-42 throwing. In the process, Brees became the fifth player in NFL history to reach 50,000 career passing yards, joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway.
Brees was the fastest player to ever do so, reaching the mark in 183 games. He has thrown for 37,678 yards since joining the Saints in 2006.
"To be in that class of four people now really hits on his consistency, his durability, his availability along with his skill set. We are happy for him and obviously proud," said New Orleans coach Sean Payton.
After falling behind 6-0 in the first quarter, New Orleans tallied three touchdowns in the second quarter against a Carolina defense that hadn't allowed more than two in a single game this season. Brees was 14-of-16 for 159 yards in the frame.
Wide receiver Marques Colston had nine receptions for 125 yards and two scores, while tight end Jimmy Graham added a pair of TD catches for the Saints, who bounced back from a 34-7 setback at Seattle last Monday night and moved to 7-0 at the Superdome this year.
"We had the division championship riding in the balance," Brees said of the importance of Sunday's win. "We have three more weeks to go and we'll see these guys again at their place in a couple of weeks. We wanted to bounce back in a big way with a big win. We were able to do that today."
New Orleans claimed the ninth 10-win season in franchise history, with five coming under Payton since he took over in 2006.
While the Saints are hoping they can secure their first division title and playoff berth since 2011, the Rams will officially miss the postseason for a ninth consecutive year following last Sunday's 30-10 road setback to the Arizona Cardinals.
The Rams, who went 7-8-1 last season and have not made the playoffs since 2004, fell to 5-8 thanks to their second straight setback -- both on the road -- and fifth in the last seven games overall.
Kellen Clemens passed for 181 yards and was picked off twice, one returned 23 yards for a score just 10 seconds into the second half. He was also sacked for safety, while the run game was held to just 44 yards not counting wide receiver Tavon Austin's 56-yard end around.
St. Louis fell to 1-4 versus the NFC West this season and will also host Tampa Bay next weekend before ending the season on the road in Seattle. Over that time, coach Jeff Fisher and his club will be looking to build momentum ahead of next season.
"We're going to get better, and our focus is going on the Saints," noted Fisher. "That's what we're going to do. We're going to get better. We're going to take it one game at a time and we're going to get better. We've got some guys banged up."
That includes Austin, who suffered a leg injury on his long run.
The Rams snapped a two-game losing streak to the Saints with a victory at home in the last meeting on Oct. 30, 2011. Brees threw for 269 yards with a touchdown, but was picked off twice and sacked six times.
New Orleans lost in St. Louis for only the third time in their last eight trips there.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The 34-year-old Brees continued his assault on NFL record books last weekend. In addition to his 50,000-yard milestone, his six-yard touchdown pass to Colston in the second quarter gave him a sixth consecutive season of 30-or- more touchdown throws. That broke a tie with Favre (1994-98) for the longest such streak in league history.
Brees also went over 4,000-yards passing on the season with his effort against the Panthers, his NFL-best eighth season in a row surpassing that mark.
Brees' success has translated into big numbers for Colston and Graham. The former became the first Saint and 87th player in league history to top 8,000 career receiving yards, while Graham's two TDs gave him 14 on the season, extending his own team record.
Graham's 14 touchdowns are the second highest single-season total by a tight end in league history, behind only Rob Gronkowski's 17 with New England in 2011.
"Fifty thousand is pretty unbelievable. I'm very lucky to have a quarterback like that," Graham said of Brees. "He's taught me everything that I know. He trusts me in situations that most quarterbacks wouldn't. He's just a special guy. I call him the surgeon. He knows who is open. He knows where to go with the ball. It's just an amazing feat."
New Orleans ranks second in the NFL with 302.9 passing yards per game and Graham's six 100-yard games this season are tied for the most by a tight end in NFL annuals.
But what makes the Saints really dangerous is the improvement of a once- laughable defense under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. New Orleans held Carolina to 239 total yards last weekend and ranks sixth in total defense (313.6 YPG). The Saints are also giving up under 19 points per game.
"He has done a great job," Fisher said of Ryan. "He is an outstanding coach. He has them playing well and he has the pieces now. There are no holes in the defense. Everyone is playing well together."
Defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Junior Galette teamed up to record all five of the Saints' sacks last week. That upped the team total to 43, the highest single-season total since 2001.
Galette had a career-high three sacks versus the Panthers, giving him nine on the season, while Jordan's two sacks moved his season total to a personal-high 11 1/2. Jordan is the first Saint to reach double-digit sacks since Will Smith (13 1/2) in 2009 and he is tied for fourth in the NFL.
It is St. Louis' run game that should be of concern to the Saints, despite last weekend's struggles. Stacy has rushed for 507 yards and five touchdowns over his last six games, sparking the offense since taking over as the starter.
"Well we drafted Zach because we felt like he had a chance to do what he has done thus far," said Fisher of the 2013 fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt. "It takes young backs a while, some longer than others. It didn't take Zach very long at all to what we call figure out how to play without the football. It is very important to us. He got that stuff down and when he got the opportunity he took advantage of it."
Stacy will be looking to rebound from his lowest single-game total in nine starts, held to 25 yards on 14 carries by the Cardinals.
The Rams will test Brees with a push rush that features defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long.
Though held without a sack for a second game in a row, Quinn still leads the NFC with 13 this season, the second-highest total in football, while Long has 6 1/2 sacks on the year and three the last time these two clubs met.
St. Louis managed just one sack versus Arizona, with rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree getting the first of his career. He is also second on the club with 94 tackles, two back of middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.
The Saints seem to have the right attitude by focusing on the a division title to avoid making this a dreaded trap game. Brees mentioned following last weekend's win just how much securing a first-round bye can be, something that will likely belong to the NFC South champion.
"A couple of years ago in 2010, we were 11-5 and found ourselves as the five seed going to play at 7-9 Seattle," noted Brees, whose club lost that matchup with the Seahawks. "Atlanta was 13-3 and won our division. That's why it is important to win the division. You want to secure that first-round bye if you can. Certainly, that is on our list of goals. We just need to focus on winning the division championship."
The Rams showed the last time these teams played that a good pass rush can help to slow Brees down, but the Saints quarterback continues to play off the charts and is near unstoppable when Graham is at his disposal.
Feeding Stacy the ball will help to keep the Saints offense off the field, but Brees doesn't need all that much to work with.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, Rams 16
12/12 15:09:15 ET