Raybon: Can We Stop Pretending the Rams Don’t Deserve to Be in the Super Bowl?

Raybon: Can We Stop Pretending the Rams Don’t Deserve to Be in the Super Bowl? article feature image
Credit:

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman (23)

  • The Rams won the NFC Championship game 26-23 in OT after benefitting from a key no-call late in the fourth quarter that gave them new life.
  • I break down why overlooking the Rams in the Super Bowl would still be a mistake and why you shouldn't let the Saints completely off the hook despite the unfortunate turn of events.

The Rams shouldn’t be in the Super Bowl, and everyone knows it.

Admissions of guilt have already been made from all those at fault, lawsuits have already been filed, and in one case, bets on the Saints were even refunded.

But until NFL officials are completely replaced by robots, the harsh reality is that the only way to truly guarantee victory is to dominate so thoroughly that an officiating error — no matter how egregious — can flip the outcome from a win to a loss. There’s a reason that a team’s record in one-score games isn’t predictive.

Still, there’s an inescapable sense among many that the Rams don’t deserve to be here.

The betting market is a prime example: The Rams opened as 1-point favorites — the correct line, according to our Power Ratings — but the line has already moved to Patriots -2.5 as 82% of spread tickets and 85% of spread dollars have come in on New England, according to The Action Network’s live public betting data.

In fact, the Patriots are on pace to be the most popular Super Bowl bet ever tracked.

I understand the outrage, but Rams disrespect has gone too far. Are we really hate-betting against the Rams? And with the evil Patriots, of all teams?

How do we begin to accept that a team that shouldn’t be here still deserves to be?

“Should,” by definition, is about correctness and probability; “deserve,” on the other hand, is about worthiness.

The Saints should have been awarded a new set of downs and been able to run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal, but again, to not crush your enemy totally in the NFL is to open yourself up to the harsh reality that an untimely lapse in judgement by an official could lead to your demise.

But there’s also another harsh reality: The no-call wasn’t the reason the Saints lost.

According to numberFire’s win probability model, the Saints still had a 78% win probability when the Rams started at their own 25 down 23-20 with 1:41 remaining in regulation. But before the no-call swung the odds against them by 22%, the Saints were lucky to come away with a play that created an even bigger 30% swing in their favor.

I’ll start there and break down why writing off the Rams — or letting the Saints completely off the hook — is a mistake.

Brees’ 43-yard Pass to Ted Ginn Should Have Been Intercepted

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Brees’ 37% completion probability on this throw represents his least likely completion of the game. One look makes it clear that baked into the other 63% is a good chance of an interception:

This play ends up making the no-call to come even more jarring — everything feels like it’s going to go the Saints’ way at this point. Ginn makes a great individual play to bail his quarterback out for a pass that seemed destined to either set up a third-and-12 or function as a second-down punt.

Even with the bomb to Ginn, Brees’ completions averaged only 4.2 yards in the air for the game, per Next Gen Stats, which is easily the worst among all quarterbacks in the Conference Championship Round and would be tied for worst in the league during the regular season.

The Saints Should Have Run on First Down

Ginn’s catch sets the Saints up with a first-and-10 on the LA 13 with 1:58 remaining and the Rams down to two timeouts. You would expect Saints head coach Sean Payton to approach this situation by running twice in a row in order to make the Rams burn their last two timeouts. That would then set up a third-down play where the Saints have the option to either run for a third time and take the clock down to around 1 minute, or attempt to throw for the first down and hope that at worst they complete a pass short of the sticks that keeps the clock moving.

Passing on first down in this situation isn’t indefensible, but it’s unnecessarily aggressive.

In Brees’ postgame presser, he spoke of controlling what you can control, but throwing on first down here does the exact opposite. Hitting the high-risk, high-reward play to Ginn to flip the field and put the Saints in the driver’s seat thereby reduced the need for more high-risk, high-reward strategy going forward, especially on first down.

An incompletion in this spot effectively eliminates the possibility of the Saints achieving best-case scenarios in regard to both milking the clock and the Rams burning their remaining timeouts, and even if the Saints end up scoring, the Rams still have two timeouts and nearly 2 minutes to work with.

So Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips dials up a zero blitz, essentially daring the Saints to pass.

According to Payton’s postgame remarks, the Saints had a run called but Brees checked to a pass once he realized Phillips was sending the house.

Payton defended his play calling here by explaining the Saints “initially” had a run called, but that means next to nothing — if he wanted to run no matter what he could have communicated as much to Brees. Still, the play has a chance if Brees doesn’t launch a sinker into the dirt that even Michael Thomas — the wide receiver who holds the NFL’s all-time single-season record for catch rate at the position (85.0%) — can’t handle.

At this point it’s hard to ignore that things are getting weird with Brees. We’ve already seen him badly misfire on what would have been a third-down conversion to Ginn deep in LA territory on the previous drive, then get bailed out by Ginn on the ill-advised throw one play earlier, and now this.

You also have to wonder if the aggressive approach was at least in part driven by the fear of giving up another walk-off touchdown like they did to Stefon Diggs in the 2018 Divisional Round.

Instead, after a second-and-10 run by Alvin Kamara goes for no gain, the Saints are set up with a third-and-10 with 1:49 remaining and the Rams still with one timeout.

The Saints line up with Kamara split out wide to the left and wide receiver Tommylee Lewis in Kamara’s normal spot in the backfield. This alignment creates momentary confusion for the Rams, and when Brees alertly calls for the quick snap, cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, who has coverage on Lewis on the play, is already beat before Lewis even turns upfield on his wheel route out of the backfield.

In an ideal world, Brees would get the ball out to Lewis quickly. That way, Lewis would have maximum separation from Robey-Coleman and could finish the job one-on-one in space.

But as luck would have it, the deception involving Kamara works a little too well: Instead of rushing the passer at the snap, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh leaks out into the flat on Lewis — a tactic otherwise employed specifically for disrupting Kamara. The end result is that Suh bails on following Lewis to rush the passer instead and finds himself in the ideal passing lane between Brees and Lewis, which forces Brees into attempting a lob with a higher degree of difficulty.

For the third time in three attempts, Brees doesn’t get enough on the ball. We know this because despite getting beat from the jump, Robey-Coleman arrives at the pass’s eventual landing spot with time to grab a coffee, read the paper, and barrel over Lewis before the ball finally arrives.

Knowing how precise Brees normally is, and that a fresh set of downs is better than a touchdown in this situation, it’s fair to wonder if Brees purposely led Lewis into contact rather than the end zone.

That would have been understandable, but again excessively risky — if Robey-Coleman, who otherwise had a strong game with nine yards allowed on seven targets (per Pro Football Focus), takes a moment to locate the ball, it’s possible he’s going back the other way with a pick-six.

The Saints Still Should Have Won

The fateful no-call that gave the Rams new life also set the Saints defense up for redemption. A year removed from giving up the most improbable of season-ending walk-off touchdowns against Minnesota, New Orleans’ defense could have made the no-call on Robey-Coleman a footnote rather than an asterisk. It just needed to come up with one stop with the odds heavily in its favor.

But just five Goff attempts later and the Rams’ 22% win probability had already more than doubled.

It could have been worse, too: Robert Woods almost certainly scores on what instead ends up as a 16-yard reception to convert on third down and put the Rams in field-goal range at the New Orleans 33 with 45 seconds remaining in regulation.

As off as Brees had been at times during this game, he survived the entire contest without a turnover until after the Rams settled for a field goal to tie the score at 23 and the Saints got the ball to start overtime. But on a second-and-16 from his own 34, Brees was hit as he threw by linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., and the Rams literally backed into an interception on the resulting wobbler.

To add insult to injury, Thomas would appear to have at least a sliver of hope at obstructing or distracting safety John Johnson III enough to prevent the interception had he continued to play through contact instead of throwing his arms up, which completely took him out of the play just as Johnson III was attempting to secure the catch.

When it was Goff’s turn under pressure, his play was ironically far more befitting of a future Hall of Famer.

On first-and-10 from the Rams 46, Goff somehow evades defensive end Alex Okafor screaming off the left edge for just long enough to get the ball out to one of his tight ends, Tyler Higbee, for a 12-yard gain.

After C.J. Anderson gets stuffed for a 3-yard loss, Goff finds Higbee again under duress for a 6-yard gain, this time with defensive end Cameron Jordan breathing down his neck from the right. Goff’s second straight completion under pressure puts the Rams squarely in Greg Zuerlein’s field-goal range.

Two plays later, and the Rams had turned a 22% chance of making to the Super Bowl into a 100% certainty.

The Rams Are Lucky … But Still Legit

The Rams are fortunate to be playing for a Lombardi Trophy, but to think they’re illegitimate contenders inferior to the Saints in any major way is silly. We all know who the real villains are here, and it’s not the Rams.

It goes without saying that this whole situation is unfortunate for the Saints. They were robbed. But they were also outlasted. Their stars got outplayed in the clutch. They turned what should have been a minor setback into a major catastrophe, failing to overcome adversity that still left them with a win probability more than three times higher than the Rams’. And this all happened to the Saints at home, where their crowd is so loud that at one point Goff had to sprint all the way out to where his receiver was lined up just to communicate an audible. It happened in a game that the Saints at one point led 13-0, and one in which the Rams got nearly as many drops (2) and savage memes (1) as touches (5) out of their best offensive player, Todd Gurley.

Brees finished 26-of-40 for 249 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for the game, but from the fourth quarter on, he was 4-of-11 for 59 yards — with 43 coming on on the play where Ginn bailed him out — and one interception.

On 10 pressured dropbacks overall, Brees was 5-of-8 for 43 yards with a pick and two sacks, according to PFF.

Kamara racked up 11 catches for 96 receiving yards, but his 13 targets meant he averaged a modest 7.4 yards per target. All but one catch for eight yards came in the first three quarters. On the ground, Kamara managed only 15 yards on eight carries.

And after going off for 12 catches, 211 yards and a touchdown in Week 9 against the Rams, Thomas went catchless on two targets in the fourth quarter and OT in his second encounter, finishing with a harmless 4 catches for 36 yards on 7 targets for the game.

If you would have told me before this game that the Rams were going to be able to hold the Saints in check like that, I would have told you they’re Super Bowl-worthy.

In fact, I did:

If the Rams end up covering or even winning outright, it will likely be because Phillips figured out a way to limit Alvin Kamara in similar fashion to Zeke in the run game, while also getting pressure on Brees and containing Thomas in the passing game — all Super-Bowl-worthy accomplishments for sure.


Chris Raybon is a Senior Editor at the Action Network and a co-host of “I’ll Take That Bet” on ESPN+. He has watched every snap of every NFL game since 2010 — even the kneel downs. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisRaybon and read about how he quit his accounting job and got paid to watch sports.