IN­SIDE

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BRETT MAR­TEL AP writer Greg Beacham in Thou­sand Oaks, Cal­i­for­nia, con­trib­uted.

SAINTS VS. RAMS IN BAT­TLE OF NFC’S ELITE, AND AN IM­POR­TANT WEST COAST CLASH AS CHARG­ERS VISIT SEA­HAWKS,

Saints coach Sean Pay­ton has seen plenty of road haz­ards in the nearly 13 years he’s lived in New Or­leans, a city where streets rou­tinely crack and buckle atop the spongy land­scape of drained swamp and marsh.

That could ex­plain the metaphor at the fore­front of Pay­ton’s con­scious­ness when he de­scribed how he sees Sun­day’s clash with the un­beaten Los An­ge­les Rams. Al­though the matchup be­tween the Rams (8-0) and surg­ing Saints (6-1) has the in­gre­di­ents of a po­ten­tial NFC ti­tle game pre­view, Pay­ton sug­gested that he’s bet­ter served by ap­proach­ing the game in much the same way he drives around his adop­tive home town.

“You see a team com­ing in here un­beaten, and you know they are in the NFC, and you rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of the game,” Pay­ton said.

“But I look at it more from a team per­spec­tive. And I look at it more from, ‘Man, this is the next chal­lenge.’

“So we just stare, in this city, at the pot­hole in front of us. That’s the one we got to worry about. Not the ones that are there com­ing up be­yond that,” Pay­ton con­tin­ued. “And this one sits square in the mid­dle of the street.”

Rams coach Sean McVay should take the pot­hole com­par­i­son as a com­pli­ment. It’s clear the 54-year-old Pay­ton ad- mires what the Rams’ 32-year-old, sim­i­larly of­fen­sive-minded head coach has ac­com­plished in just his first sea­son-and-ahalf as a head coach.

“I am a huge fan of Sean’s and I have got­ten to know him and have a ton of re­spect for what he has done go­ing on his sec­ond year,” Pay­ton said of McVay, adding that he “ab­so­lutely” makes a point of watch­ing the Rams through­out the sea­son.

“They’re a must-watch team,” Pay­ton said.

The ad­mi­ra­tion is mu­tual when McVay dis­cusses Pay­ton’s of­fense.

“I look at their tape every week, see what they’re do­ing,” McVay said. “I also ap­pre­ci­ate the ag­gres­sive na­ture that coach Pay­ton comes af­ter peo­ple.

“That mind­set of never be­ing afraid to fail and al­ways at­tack­ing is some­thing that we try to do,” McVay added. “It demon­strates a con­fi­dence and be­lief in your play­ers.”

Some other story lines sur­round­ing the Ram­sSaints show­down, the win­ner of which will have the in­side track to the No. 1 play­off seed­ing in the con­fer­ence:

Coach-QB com­bos: The Saints have been among the NFL lead­ers in of­fense since Pay­ton ar­rived in New Or­leans and re­cruited then-free agent Drew Brees to join him in 2006.

Cur­rently, the Saints rank eighth in yards per game (389.9) and sec­ond in points per game (33.4).

The Rams of­fense, with 2016 top over­all draft choice Jared Goff un­der cen­ter, rank sec­ond in yards (442.6) and third in scor­ing (33).

Each team’s head coach-QB tan­dem mir­ror one an­other in that Pay­ton and McVay both call of­fen­sive plays, putting a premium on their com­mu­ni­ca­tion and re­la­tion­ship with their quar­ter­backs. The dif­fer­ence is that Pay­ton and the 39-yearold Brees have been to­gether far longer, and Brees has set pres­ti­gious NFL pass­ing records .

“Those guys are two of the best ever to do it to­gether,” the 24-year-old Goff said. “Me and Sean (McVay) have a great re­la­tion­ship, and hope­fully it'll con­tinue to grow.”

De­fen­sive dis­par­ity: The Rams al­ready had the league’s eighth-ranked de­fense be­fore the ad­di­tion of edge pass-rusher Dante Fowler at Tues­day’s NFL trade dead­line.

In seven games with Jack­sonville this sea­son, Fowler’s high­lights in­cluded two sacks and a forced fum­ble. It’s un­clear how much he'll play right away, but is ex­pected to ro­tate into the game on some pass­ing downs.

“I don’t re­ally know how they’re go­ing to use him yet, but I watched some film on him,” Saints right tackle Ryan Ram­czyk said.

“He’s a good ath­lete, a good player, so I'll be pre­pared.”

The Saints rank 23rd in to­tal de­fense – 28th against the pass – but have been op­por­tunis­tic.

MARK J. TER­RILL AP

The Rams ex­pect to have re­ceiver Cooper Kupp back for Sun­day’s game against the Saints af­ter a two-game ab­sence with a knee in­jury.

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