Saints-Rams NFC ti­tle game touts like-minded coaches

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BRETT MAR­TEL

One way or an­other, the NFC Cham­pi­onship be­tween the Los An­ge­les Rams and New Or­leans Saints will be won by a coach named Sean – with an Irish sur­name – who de­signs and calls plays for one of the most in­no­va­tive and pro­duc­tive of­fenses in the NFL.

The ties be­tween the Saints’ Sean Pay­ton and the Rams’ Sean McVay go well be­yond a shared name.

“We both cut our teeth in this league un­der Jon Gru­den,” Pay­ton said. “That (Rams) staff – there’s a ton of guys that we’re friendly with and that we know on that staff. Guys who we have worked with, and Sean and I have a real good re­la­tion­ship. He is an en­gag­ing guy, a fun guy to be around.”

Gru­den, the cur­rent Oak­land Raiders coach, was the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor with the Ea­gles in 1997 when Pay­ton was hired as quar­ter­backs. In 2008, Gru­den was the head coach in Tampa Bay when he hired McVay as a re­ceivers coach.

Dur­ing the past two sea­sons Pay­ton and McVay have each led their teams to the play­offs with one of the best of­fenses in foot­ball, thanks in part to elite quar­ter­backs – Drew Brees with New Or­leans (14-3) and Jared Goff of Los An­ge­les (14-3).

Both coaches have ac­knowl­edged they watch each other’s of­fen­sive film nearly ev­ery week – not just be­cause of the pos­si­bil­ity of play­ing against one an­other; they’re look­ing for good ideas.

And then there are some con­nec­tions on the ros­ter and coach­ing staff. One of the Rams’ top re­ceivers, Brandin Cooks, was Pay­ton’s first-round draft choice in 2014. Los An­ge­les’ run­ning game co­or­di­na­tor is Aaron Kromer, a for­mer run­ning backs and of­fen­sive line coach un­der Pay­ton, in­clud­ing on the 2009 Su­per Bowl-win­ning squad.

Play­ers on both teams praise their coach’s in­tan­gi­ble feel for how a game is de­vel­op­ing.

Saints Pro Bowl left tackle Ter­ron Arm­stead ex­toled Pay­ton’s “fear­less­ness” in his play call­ing and said the coach has “so much be­lieve and con­fi­dence in us and the sys­tem that we can go out and make a play no mat­ter the down and dis­tance.”

Goff men­tioned how McVay sends in plays “with con­fi­dence and hav­ing a good feel for ev­ery­thing.”

“There’s cer­tain mo­ments in games where be­ing a good play caller – you can’t teach it – but there’s cer­tain mo­ments where you have to go for that dag­ger or you have to pull back a lit­tle bit,” Goff con­tin­ued. “There’s just dif­fer­ent ebbs and flows in games. I think he’s got a great feel for that.”

The main thing that sep­a­rates the two is age and ex­pe­ri­ence. The 55year-old Pay­ton got his first head coach­ing job 13 years ago, is coach­ing in his third NFC ti­tle game and try­ing win his sec­ond Su­per Bowl. In his sec­ond sea­son as a head coach, McVay, 32, is pre­par­ing for his first NFC ti­tle game.

The same goes for their QBs: the record-set­ting Brees turned 40 on Tues­day and Goff is 24.

Get­ting to a Su­per Bowl by win­ning Sun­day would be a good start for McVay and the Rams, whose first loss this sea­son came when they last vis­ited the Su­per­dome on Nov. 4 and fell 45-35.

Here are some other story lines sur­round­ing the high-stakes re­match: Lost leader: New Or­leans placed top de­fen­sive tackle Shel­don Rank­ins on in­jured re­serve this week af­ter he tore his Achilles last Sun­day against Philadel­phia . Not only was the 2016 first-round draft choice the an­chor of a de­fen­sive front that helped the Saints rank No. 2 in the NFL in stop­ping the run, but he also ranked sec­ond on the club with eight sacks. With­out Rank­ins, the Saints will rely more on tack­les David Onye­mata and Tyeler Dav­i­son, along with rookie Tay­lor Stall­worth and re­cently signed vet­eran Tyrunn Walker.

Rams re­in­force­ments: Brees carved up the Rams’ de­fense for 346 yards pass­ing and four TDs in the teams’ first meet­ing, but the Rams have rea­son to be­lieve they can do bet­ter this time. Star cor­ner­back Aqib Talib was in­jured and missed that game in Novem­ber, but he is back in uni­form. Los An­ge­les typ­i­cally doesn’t line up cor­ner­backs against spe­cific re­ceivers, but de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips could con­sider it to get Talib against Michael Thomas, who had 211 yards re­ceiv­ing largely against Mar­cus Peters in the last meet­ing. Phillips also has two ad­di­tional months of ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing edge rusher Dante Fowler, who had just ar­rived in a trade with Jack­sonville for the last meet­ing.

Dome ad­van­tage: Since Pay­ton and Brees joined forces in 2006, the Saints have gone 6-0 in play­off games in the Su­per­dome, in­clud­ing two wins the sea­son they won the Su­per Bowl. Pay­ton sug­gested that the en­vi­ron­ment in the dome – while not an over­whelm­ing fac­tor – is nonethe­less a fac­tor that can in­flu­ence an op­pos­ing of­fense in par­tic­u­lar. Whit’s home­com­ing: While most of the Rams haven’t had much suc­cess at the Su­per­dome, left tackle An­drew Whit­worth has had a suc­cess­ful ca­reer. The Louisiana na­tive won three high school state cham­pi­onships in the arena, and then added a na­tional cham­pi­onship with LSU when the Tigers beat Ok­la­homa in the Sugar Bowl in Jan­uary 2004.

Sean McVay

Sean Pay­ton

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