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Start gearing up for Rams-Saints to decide the NFC

MINNEAPOLIS -- Oh, man. Do we really have to wait six days for Sunday? Can't we just access a time machine and fast-forward to Nov. 4 in New Orleans? Because on that day, the Superdome will host what sure looks like one of the most important games of the 2018 season.

It's not always smart to separate contenders and pretenders midway through an NFL season. But as Week 8 fades from view, it's difficult to avoid putting the Los Angeles Rams (8-0) and New Orleans Saints (6-1) atop the NFC playoff race. And, hey, what do you know? The Rams and Saints will meet at the Superdome in Week 9.

A full analysis of the NFC would acknowledge that the Carolina Panthers are 5-2 and still have both games remaining against the Saints. Quietly, the Washington Redskins (5-2) hold the muddy NFC East lead. But the Rams' unbeaten mark and the Saints' six-game winning streak, including two consecutive victories on the road, demonstrate clear separation from the rest of the field.

We all know what powers the Rams -- namely a talent-rich roster combined with an innovative offensive scheme. What's impressive about the Saints, however, is that no obvious pattern has emerged from their winning ways. This team is as capable of winning games with an explosive passing game as it is with one that barely reaches triple-digit yardage.

"We feel like we're battle-tested and have won in a lot of different ways already in the first part of this season," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after his team dismantled the Minnesota Vikings 30-20 Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in a game that wasn't even as close as the score appeared.

If you've been monitoring the Saints only from afar, you might be shocked to learn they won handily despite the least explosive passing game of Brees' 13 seasons with the Saints. He threw for only 120 yards, fewer than any game in his career in which his team scored 30 points, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Overall, the total was Brees' lowest for any full game he has played since signing with the Saints in 2006.

Brees has thrown for 396 and 363 yards in wins this season, but we learned Sunday night that he doesn't need to throw like that for the Saints to thrive. They plowed through the Vikings with a decidedly ball-control offense that had Brees throwing 82 percent of his passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage -- his highest such percentage in any game with the Saints. His average pass traveled just 2.8 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Brees said he considered the passing game "a complement" to the overall offense, an accurate, jarring and exceedingly positive development for the Saints as a Super Bowl contender.

"[It was] positive plays that put us in manageable situations so we could sustain drives to stay on the field and keep their explosive offense off the field," Brees said. "... It wasn't a conservative approach. It is just a smart approach."

Really? The Saints, quarterbacked by Brees and coached by Sean Payton, were driven to keep another team's offense off the field? Yup. Why challenge one of the NFL's better defenses when your own defense is setting up easy scores? The turning point Sunday night came late in the second quarter, when linebacker Alex Anzalone forced a fumble by receiver Adam Thielen as the Vikings were driving to extend a 13-10 advantage. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore recovered and returned it 54 yards. Two plays later, tailback Alvin Kamara's 1-yard touchdown run gave the Saints a lead they would never relinquish.

"I feel like they gave us their best shot the first couple drives," cornerback P.J. Williams said. "We stayed good. We stayed tight."

The Vikings never recovered from that gut punch, running out the clock on the rest of the half -- despite having two timeouts -- and playing the second half seemingly in slow motion. The Saints went on a 20-0 run over the next 27:04.

"We were in a slugfest until the third quarter, and then we felt them break," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "At some point, they didn't want it anymore."

Take a moment to consider what the Saints have done this month. In a span of three weeks, they have crushed the Redskins by 24 points, handed the Baltimore Ravens their only home loss of the season and broken the will of the Vikings by halftime. They are now 4-0 on the road for the first time since 2009, when they went on to win Super Bowl XLIV.

And now they'll return home to host the Rams, whose scheme has looked invincible at times but showed some vulnerability as they held off the Green Bay Packers 29-27 on Sunday. Quarterback Jared Goff missed on 9 of 12 pass attempts when pressured, averaging just 4.0 yards per attempt. The Saints sacked Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins four times, hitting him a total of nine times, according to the official game book, and forced two turnovers.

If the Saints can produce that kind of havoc on the road, imagine what they could bring against the Rams at home. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this matchup will be the first time both teams enter the game averaging 33.0 PPG this late in the season.

It's rare to see a midseason matchup between the two best teams in a conference. We got the AFC version in Week 6, when the New England Patriots handed the Kansas City Chiefs their first loss of the season in an exciting, action-packed, 43-40 battle. And now we have a chance to see the NFC's top teams duel on Sunday at the Superdome. Buckle up. Only six more days to go.