NFL playoffs 2019: X-factor for each NFC championship team

NFL playoffs 2019: X-factor for each NFC championship team

The Saints and Rams will meet for the second time this season Sunday in the NFC championship, and both will look the their not-so-secret weapons in order to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

In the teams’ previous matchup in Week 9, things were a little different for the visiting Los Angeles squad while New Orleans enjoyed the home-field advantage in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Now, the Rams will hope to use their high-powered rushing attack which has boosted the offense after the midseason loss of wide receiver Cooper Kupp. At the same time, the Saints, who will again be playing host, will rely on their biggest playmaker, receiver Michael Thomas, to expose an inconsistent secondary.

It will be up to each of the teams’ X-factors, and then some, to play in February.

Los Angeles Rams

X-factor: The run game

There has only been one other playoff performance like running back Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson’s in the last decade. It was in 2013 when former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore each had 100-plus receiving yards, and the last pair of Rams to complete the feat were Marshall Faulk and Trung Candidate when they combined for 328 yards in 2001.

Gurley and Anderson combined for 238 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys, who allowed just 3.8 yards per carry during the regular season — the fourth-best run defense in the NFL. By all accounts, it should have been difficult for Gurley to finish his seventh game with 100-plus yards (115) and Anderson to have his third consecutive games with 120-or-more yards (123), but the pair got it done behind a stout offensive line.

The two will again need to bring one of their best games against the Saints. But, this won’t be easy.

New Orleans finished the regular season with the second-best rushing defense and allowed only 3.6 yards per carry. The Saints have talent in four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft. There has only been a handful of times they have given up more than 100 yards on the ground.

In Week 9, the Rams rushed for 92 yards. It was their second game up to that point with fewer than 100 rushing yards (fifth total on the season). Meanwhile, the Saints had only allowed 100-or-more rushing yards once before their first meeting with Los Angeles. Since then, three other teams have been able to rack up yards on the ground against New Orleans, and the Rams will need to add their name to the list.

New Orleans Saints

X-factor: Michael Thomas

Yes, Drew Brees orchestrated another come-from-behind win to put the Saints one game away from their second Super Bowl appearance. But, if Brees is the conductor then Michael Thomas is just waiting for his solo.

Thomas, who led the league in the regular season with 125 receptions for 1,405 yards, helped the team to a 20-14 win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles in the divisional round. He had 12 catches and one touchdown which put the Saints ahead for good. He set a franchise playoff record with 171 receiving yards that included a handful of catches that would be difficult for anyone not named Michael Thomas.

But what’s more impressive than his colossal numbers is that it wasn’t even his best performance of the season. The two-time Pro Bowl player has had two other games with 180 yards or more — Week 1 (180 yards) and Week 9 (211). His 211-yard day was against the hot-and-cold Rams defense.

Los Angeles boasts a defensive front that includes the likes of Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers. The three have 26 combined sacks and will pressure quarterback Drew Brees every opportunity they get. It’s the Rams secondary that should cause concern, especially against Thomas.

In Thomas’ previous matchup against the Rams, cornerback Marcus Peters was exposed on big plays more than he made them. Los Angeles employed a zone defense which Brees and a wide-open Thomas took full advantage of and when Peters was playing man coverage, Thomas overpowered him to snag the ball for 12 receptions — his second highest of the season. Peters, who can and does have the ability to make those big plays, had a pass breakup that nearly resulted in an interception.

It just depends on which secondary shows up to face Thomas.