Rising Saints: The Saints are the team to beat in the NFC after they hand the Rams their first loss.
NEW ORLEANS – Michael Thomas had his way all day long, so it was only fitting that the New Orleans Saints star delivered the finishing touch.
With his team nursing a three-point lead with four minutes remaining in a shootout with the Los Angeles Rams, the wide receiver raced up the left sideline, separating from cornerback Marcus Peters. Drew Brees saw the window and let fly. The ball sailed over Peters’ leaping reach and dropped perfectly into Thomas’ hands. Untouched, he raced the remaining 45 yards of the field and scored on a 72-yard touchdown.
The play gave the Saints a much-needed cushion and the final 45-35 score, pushing New Orleans’ winning streak to seven games while handing the Rams their first loss of the season.
But Thomas wasn’t done yet. After crossing the goal line, he kneeled down, sprinted to the goal post, lifted it and and pulled out a cellphone in an homage to former Saints receiver Joe Horn.
The theatrics caught Saints players by surprise and drew an unsportsmanlikeconduct penalty, which backed the kickoff to New Orleans’ 20-yard-line. But considering the kind of day Thomas had turned in, his teammates harbored no ill will.
“When your man does something like that, like legendary like that, the kickoff just gotta go cover, because that was legendary,” running back Mark Ingram explained with a laugh.
Legendary would best describe both Thomas’ body of work (12 catches on 15 targets for a franchise-record 211 yards and a touchdown) and the offensive output of the Saints’ and Rams’ tilt. The teams combined for 80 points and 970 yards while confirming their reputations as two of the league’s elite teams.
But the contest came down to a handful of defensive performances — not from the star-studded unit in which the Rams have invested so heavily, but rather from the less-heralded Saints.
For New Orleans, three second-quarter stops paid off in a big way.
“That turned the tide in our favor,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.
During that swing, the Saints notched a turnover on downs and then snagged an interception. New Orleans’ offense then cashed those possessions in for three consecutive touchdowns. Sean McVay), with each leader creating opportunity after opportunity with their play calls. And both have talented quarterbacks, although Brees is a future Hall of Famer and Jared Goff is still ascending.
But it became apparent that the Saints hold the edge over the Rams in several key areas.
The Saints’ offensive front surrendered only one sack and paved the way for 141 rushing yards. And while Todd Gurley is an MVP candidate, New Orleans found ways to limit his impact (19 touches for 79 total yards). Alvin Kamara (116 total yards and three touchdowns) and Mark Ingram, meanwhile, give the Saints a versatile tandem that makes for the league’s most complete rushing attack. A defense might find a way to limit one, but it’s hard to take away both.
And then there’s Thomas, whose Twitter handle is rightfully @Cantguardmike. The Rams have nice weapons, but none of their wideouts can match the Saints’ top option.
For now, the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl runs through New Orleans.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas (13) pulled out a cellphone to celebrate his touchdown with teammates Austin Carr (80) and Tre’Quan Smith. DERICK E. HINGLE/USA TODAY SPORTS
Columnist USA TODAY