The Superdome was quiet.
The Saints had built a 35-14 lead just before halftime, but after the Rams scored 21 unanswered points, punctuated by a 41-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp to cut the lead to 35-35, the famously raucous New Orleans crowd fell silent.
Just two plays later, on second-and-10 with 9:34 left in the fourth quarter, Alvin Kamara hurdled Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner on a 17-yard run that snatched the energy from the Rams and distributed it across the home crowd.
If Saints-Rams was a seesaw ride, Kamara’s hurdle was the tipping point. The Rams didn’t get another first down or point after that play, and the Saints added 10 more points to win 45-35, beat the last undefeated team in football, and extend their winning streak to seven. Just as Kamara jumped over Joyner, the Saints leapfrogged the Rams on Sunday to take the mantle as the league’s best team.
While the Rams and Chiefs have been pegged as the kings of their conferences this season and the Patriots remain on their perpetual perch, the Saints have been the forgotten fourth horseman of this season’s Super Bowl race. But even before Sunday, it was clear this team had the pieces for a championship run: Sean Payton was the league’s Super Bowl champion offensive-guru head coach when Sean McVay was fresh out of undergrad. And their most underrated asset is the most prolific passer of all time. Kamara is the most dynamic player in football, and backup Mark Ingram would be the feature back on a third of the teams in the league. They also have Michael Thomas, the most reliable receiver in the world, and a defense that is decidedly less star-studded than the Rams’ but more effective. All told, the Saints are the most fun team in the league after the Chiefs—and the best team, period.
The game was billed as a track meet between two of the best offenses in football. It was the latest point in the season two teams averaging 33 or more points a game had met, according to Elias Sports Bureau, and the Vegas lines reflected that as some sportsbooks set the over at as much as 60 points. The game lived up to that billing from the beginning. The first four drives all ended in touchdowns, and neither team punted until the third quarter. (It was the first time Saints punter Thomas Morstead punted at home in more than 100 game minutes.)
One week after defeating the Minnesota Vikings while throwing for only 120 yards, Drew Brees completed 25 of 36 passes for 346 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions with a 137 passer rating. Brees, a master pocket manipulator whose lone weakness is facing interior pressure, was not sacked once, and he wasn’t hit by any Ram except Aaron Donald. The NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards currently has the best passer rating of his 18-year career. And as long as he makes perfect floating rainbow play-action touchdowns look this easy, he has a fair claim as the best player in the world.
Brees’s best play of the game came on a dagger 72-yard touchdown to Thomas with 3:52 left in the game to put the Saints up 45-35. Thomas burned Rams cornerback Marcus Peters and ran into the end zone untouched—and then pulled out a cell phone from the padding on the goal post in an homage to former Saints receiver Joe Horn.
(He said after the game he had a cell phone behind each goal post.)
Cam Jordan on the Mike Thomas flip phone celebration— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) November 5, 2018
"That’s a legend move, right? I don’t even know, where do you get a flip phone this day and age? Is that a Walgreens plug? A Walmart plug? I’m looking forward to where he got that from. Cricket? Boost Mobile?"
Apparently the answer was a “hole-in-the-wall liquor store.”
Michael Thomas decided this morning to do the cell phones celebration. Said phones were in both goal post paddings. Didn't want to say how early him or someone had to arrive to the Dome to plant the phones. Said he went to a "hole-in-the-wall liquor store" to find flip phones.— Larry Holder (@LarryHolder) November 5, 2018
Thomas finished with a whopping 211 yards on 12 catches and 15 targets. The 211 yards is a career high for Thomas and the highest number for any pass catcher in a game this season, breaking a tie between Jared Cook and … Michael Thomas at 180 yards a piece. Yet those gaudy numbers overshadow Thomas’s reliability. Thomas entered today catching 90.6 percent of his targets, the highest percentage ever for a receiver with at least 60 targets in a season, and today’s game “dropped” him to 88.6 percent—still the highest ever. He is just the second receiver to break the 80 percent mark.
The first half was dominated by Kamara, who scored three touchdowns in the first two quarters and finished with 116 yards from scrimmage on 23 touches. His scores were a perfect distillation of his skill set: He was bottled up on his first rushing touchdown, but paused for a moment before accelerating to the sideline while shedding arm tackles and beating the Rams around the edge.
On Kamara’s first receiving touchdown, he used that same burst to instantly create separation on an out route and walk into the end zone untouched.
Kamara joined Jim Brown as the youngest player to score three touchdowns in a game three times in a season, according to Elias. He also sealed the game for New Orleans. With the Saints facing a fourth-and-1 up 10 points at the two-minute warning, Kamara got 2 yards and the first down—clinching the game, and the Saints’ ninth fourth-down conversion in 10 tries for a league high.
The Rams, who entered Sunday 8-0, tied the game midway through the fourth quarter, but their star-studded defense couldn’t get to Brees and stopped New Orleans from scoring on only three of the Saints’ first 10 drives. Todd Gurley was held to just 79 yards and a touchdown on 19 touches, and the Rams offense stalled on its final two drives. The Rams are still a cream-of-the-crop Super Bowl contender, but they have showed defensive weaknesses in their outside pass rush and in their secondary (Peters said after the game he hasn’t been playing well). Even an A-performance from the offense (483 total yards, 8.2 yards per play) isn’t enough when their opponent can drop 35 points in the first half.
Sunday proved New Orleans has a quarterback, head coach, running back, and wide receiver who all have a claim to being the best in the league this season. The team’s defense has played better than those of other Super Bowl contenders. With a 7-1 record and the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Rams, New Orleans is now in the driver’s seat for the no. 1 seed in the NFC, which would make the path to the Super Bowl run through the Superdome. As long as the crowd is roaring, the Saints will stay heads and shoulders above the rest of the league.