The call is in: Saints are NFC’s top contender after beating Rams

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' win streak to seven games while also 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 unsportsmanlike conduct 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.

After trading touchdowns to start, the Saints scored 21 straight points to take a 35-14 lead. But the Rams countered with their own barrage to tie the game at 35-all with nine minutes left to play.

For all the attention that each squad's offense, 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 straight touchdowns.

“We talk about the ability of our defense to make those turnovers,” Jordan said. “That’s what we were emphasizing all week. We let them get a couple big plays that we would like to take back, but we have another week to make those corrections. … As for this one, we got a turnover and made a couple stops.”

And that’s exactly what they needed.

Jordan and his defensive teammates certainly established credibility with their strong second quarter and the manner in which they closed the door on Los Angeles' offense late in the fourth quarter. Coming out on top is sure to bring the team as a whole more attention, too.

Despite the six-game win streak they brought into Sunday's game, the Saints remained somewhat in the shadow of the previously unblemished Rams.

But Sunday’s victory proved that the Saints actually are the more complete of the two and just might be the most complete team in the NFC as a whole.

Both sides are led by brilliant offensive-minded head coaches (Sean Payton and 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 141 rushing yards. And while Todd Gurley is a 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 may 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. Fortunately for Los Angeles, however, McVay can scheme his receiving options open.

But the Rams do have areas to address, particularly on defense where they’re missing top cornerback Aqib Talib and still need better play from their edge rushers. The Saints exposed these vulnerabilities.

That’s not to say these issues will remain come January, when these teams could meet again in the playoffs. But for now, the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl runs through New Orleans.

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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