Ris­ing Saints: The Saints are the team to beat in the NFC af­ter they hand the Rams their first loss.

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Mike Jones

NEW OR­LEANS – Michael Thomas had his way all day long, so it was only fitting that the New Or­leans Saints star de­liv­ered the finish­ing 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 fly. The ball sailed over Peters’ leap­ing reach and dropped per­fectly into Thomas’ hands. Un­touched, he raced the re­main­ing 45 yards of the field and scored on a 72-yard touch­down.

The play gave the Saints a much-needed cush­ion and the final 45-35 score, push­ing New Or­leans’ win­ning streak to seven games while hand­ing the Rams their first 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 offen­sive out­put of the Saints’ and Rams’ tilt. The teams com­bined for 80 points and 970 yards while confirm­ing 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’ offense 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’ offen­sive 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 find 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

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