Saints evolving into NFC’s best? Showdown with undefeated Rams will provide answers

MINNEAPOLIS – Never mind the 24-hour rule. The Saints might want to roll with a 24-minute rule.

That’s what a matchup against the undefeated Rams can do for a team riding the high of a statement victory on Sunday night in their personal house of horrors.

The Saints punched the Vikings in the mouth with a 30-20 verdict that didn’t erase the heartbreak of the “Minneapolis Miracle” last January, but nonetheless had to do wonders for their psyche.

Then it was time to wake up. The Rams (8-0) are next.

“They’ve got a great team,” Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore told USA TODAY Sports as he headed toward the buses. “Todd Gurley’s my dog. I’ve got major respect. But we can’t worry about that. We’ve got to take care of ourselves before we can worry about anybody else.”

With a six-game winning streak, the Saints (6-1) have a better chance than most at handing the Rams their first loss in a midseason showdown at the Superdome on Sunday that will have huge playoff ramifications.

After all, the winner will be in the pole position in the race to claim the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Sure, it’s a long way until January. A lot can happen to change the pecking order, as the contenders face off along the way. The Vikings (4-3-1), for instance, will be heard from again – especially if they get the key pieces back that were injured on Sunday night.

Yet this is as good of a playoff simulator as any. For the Saints, they’ve proven to possess some true grit with back-to-back victories at two of the toughest road venues in the NFL – at Baltimore and at Minnesota. That’s how it flows in January, too. The minute you finish off one hot opponent, the next one awaits.

“We’re in a tough stretch right now,” Saints safety Marcus Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “But you’ve got to keep balling, keeping coming out with wins.”

Leave it to Williams to put resilience in perspective. As he gathered the belongings at his locker, he cradled a football. It was one of the “game” balls awarded during the raucous post-game celebration. If you watched the end of the NFC divisional playoff in January, you knew exactly why the second-year pro was lauded in the aftermath on Sunday night.

Williams was the defender who whiffed on the would-be open-field tackle of Stefon Diggs on the last-second, 61-yard catch-and-run that ended the Saints’ season.

“Never quit!” Demario Davis screamed from two lockers away as a pack of reporters surrounded Williams. “That’s the comeback story of the year!”

Davis, the linebacker in his first season with the Saints, didn’t even know Williams before he joined the team on a free agent contract last spring. But he was moved enough to send Williams a message of support on Twitter after the playoff setback. 

“That’s enough in this game to crush a man,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports. “But it says something about never quitting. He started adversity in the face and he’s been locked in all week. For us to get the win for him was huge.”

Williams insists that the emotion he let loose after the game had nothing to do with redemption or miracle finishes. He lost his grandfather, Richard Boyd, to cancer last week. Sunday also would have been his cousin Rose Grubbs’ birthday. She was lost to cancer 1 ½ years ago.

“I was playing for them,” Williams said.

Strikingly, Williams and his mates in the Saints secondary had a difficult start against Minnesota that was reminiscent of the tough ending here in January. The Vikings went up and down the field for two quick touchdowns – aided by busted coverages, big penalties and big plays.

Yet the Saints recovered – and not because the arm of Drew Brees bailed them out. Late in the first half, Lattimore returned an Adam Thielen fumble 54 yards to set up a touchdown. It was effectively a 14-point swing. Early in the second half, P.J. Williams, victimized repeatedly early in the game, intercepted a Kirk Cousins pass after Diggs, the intended receiver, stopped on a crossing route, and ran it back 45 yards for a touchdown.

The big plays from the defense provided the keys to victory.

Brees was efficient, but passed for a season-low 120 yards. Running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined to rush for 108 yards, but explosive plays were at a minimum. The Saints were content to get their yards in small doses.

In a sense, that was a good thing. It demonstrated another dimension for a team, another way for the Saints to win that is contrary to their reputation as a high-flying juggernaut.

Sure, they can still win shootouts. Maybe that will be the case when the Rams visit.

If not, the Saints can survive with grit, resilience and defense, too.

This team is evolving into a more complete group, which is what they will need to be in order to beat the Rams — and anybody else — if they expect to seriously contend for the biggest prize.

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