NFL Preview - St. Louis (6-6) at New Orleans (9-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - As if they needed to get any stronger.
The New Orleans Saints, who've strung together five straight victories while looking increasingly capable of a repeat Super Bowl-winning performance, have re-added yet another important piece of last season's championship puzzle.
Running back Pierre Thomas, limited by injury to just 46 carries this season, returned to a full practice this week and will play for the first time in nine games when the Saints host the NFC West co-leading St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
At 9-3, New Orleans trails streaking Atlanta by a game for first place in the NFC South and would enter the playoffs at this point as the conference's No. 5 seed. The Saints visit Baltimore and the Falcons in the next two weeks before hosting Tampa Bay in the season finale on Jan. 2.
Thomas, who ran for a team-best 793 yards and caught 39 passes last season, severely sprained his left ankle in a Week 3 loss at Atlanta. He rejoins a New Orleans backfield that's seen rookie Christopher Ivory emerge in the absence of Thomas and Reggie Bush.
"I don't know [my role]. That's up to the coaches," Thomas said. "I just know when my name is called I'm going to take advantage of my opportunities. That's the only way I'm going to be able to prove myself to everybody that I'm back and I'm myself again and that this injury is not holding me back."
Ivory gained 117 yards on 15 carries in the Saints' 34-30 victory over Cincinnati last week. He scored twice against Dallas a week earlier and went for 99 yards and a score against Seattle three games ago.
"Chris has done a number of good things, and I don't want to affect his snap count at all in regards to his carries," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "He's a different type of runner than either Pierre or Reggie. He runs hard. I thought he ran well [in Cincinnati]."
Bush returned for the last two games after suffering a broken bone in his right leg.
The resurgent Rams, who won just once last season, are tied atop the NFC West with 6-6 Seattle and hold a tie-breaker edge by virtue of a 20-3 win over the Seahawks in St. Louis in Week 4.
St. Louis hosts AFC West leader Kansas City next week, then hosts San Francisco before finishing up with the Seahawks on the road in early January.
"I think this team has reached a point where we are capable of beating those teams," St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I feel that way. I know [the players] do, too. So the better you become, the more in the thick of it you get, the higher the aspirations, that's the more upset I get when we don't win."
The first two weeks of the Rams' current three-game road swing have been successful, with the team posting a 36-33 win at Denver on Nov. 28 and a 19-6 decision over Arizona on last Sunday.
If the season ended today, the Rams would get the NFC's fourth seed and host the Saints in round one.
The Rams hold a 38-30 lead in the overall regular-season series between these former divisional foes, who faced one another twice yearly when both were part of the NFC West from 1970 to 2001. New Orleans halted a two-game slide against St. Louis, however, with a 28-23 victory at the Edward Jones Dome last season. The Rams have come away with a win in each of their last four visits to the Superdome, with the most recent being a 37-29 triumph in 2007.
The teams have squared off one time in the postseason, with the Saints earning a 31-28 home triumph over the defending Super Bowl champion Rams in a 2000 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Payton is 1-1 lifetime against the Rams, while Spagnuolo lost his only previous matchup with both the Saints and Payton last season.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
The Rams are no better than 20th in any major statistical category on offense, reaching that watermark in both weekly passing yardage (209.2 ypg) and rushing yardage (105.5 ypg). Elsewhere, they're 25th-best in a 32-team league in terms of scoring (19.3 points per game) and total yards (314.7 ypg). On defense, the Saints have been steadily changing perceptions from last year's mostly-offense championship team, holding opponents to 18.9 points per game (5th in the league), 199.2 rushing yards per week (3rd overall) and 307.1 total yards per game (9th). Foes have generated some success on the ground against New Orleans, going for an average of 107.8 yards per week on the ground -- the 16th-best defensive rate in the league.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford seeks a third straight road win and needs 347 passing yards to become the third rookie to reach 3,000 in a season. Workhorse runner Steven Jackson went for 102 yards against Arizona last week and tied Marshall Faulk for No. 2 in team history with 27 games of reaching the century mark. He's also 15 yards from becoming the first Ram with six straight 1,000- yard years and aims for a fourth straight game against the Saints with a touchdown. Jackson has accounted for 392 scrimmage yards and four scores in the past three head-to-head matchups between the teams. Elsewhere, wideout Brandon Gibson had seven catches for a career-best 93 yards in his lone game against New Orleans, while dynamic wide receiver/kick return man Danny Amendola has a career-best 65 catches, 551 receiving yards and three touchdown catches on the year.
New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma had a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown in his last game against the Rams, while with the New York Jets in January 2005. Including the playoffs, Vilma's teams are 9-3 when he records at least one interception, and he added a sack against the Bengals last week. Speaking of sacks, end Will Smith aims for a third in a row against the Rams with at least one. Safety Roman Harper has 15 tackles in two career games against St. Louis, while tackle Sedrick Ellis had a sack and a forced fumble in last week's win.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Saints maintain their status as a high-octane passing powerhouse and rank third in the league in both total yards (389.4 ypg) and passing yards (290.9 ypg) per game. Their scoring average of 24.9 points per game is eighth-best in the league, though running the ball has not been a priority, as an average of 98.5 weekly yards on the ground (25th in the league) attests. The Rams, meanwhile, have improved to middle-of-the-pack status when it comes to stopping foes each week, holding them to 19.8 points per game (10th in the league). The defense's total yardage (333.0 ypg) and rushing yardage figures are each 14th overall, while the passing number is a slightly lower 19th-best (229.5 ypg).
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 313 yards against Cincinnati and has 21,932 since coming to New Orleans in 2006, the most by any quarterback in a five- year span in league history. He became the franchise's all-time yardage leader last week as well and aims for a fourth game in a row with at least 300 passing yards. In the backfield, rookie Ivory rushed for 117 yards and two scores last week, giving him five touchdowns in the last three games. Backfield mate Bush has three scores in two games against the Rams and Thomas has 13 touchdowns in his last 13 home games. Among the New Orleans receivers, Marques Colston had eight catches for 129 yards in his first and only career home game against the Rams and has scored three times in three weeks. Return man Courtney Roby had a 97-yard run back of a kick for a touchdown his last time out against St. Louis and in his last three games, wideout Robert Meachem is averaging 30.1 yards per catch with three touchdowns.
Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe looks for a third straight game with an interception against the Saints, and he also recorded a sack last week. End James Hall has 2 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in four career games against New Orleans, and fellow end Chris Long has six sacks in his last seven games, plus one in his lone meeting with the Saints. Safety Craig Dahl had a sack and his first career interception against the Cardinals last week, while tackle Fred Robbins had a pair of sacks in that win and shoots for a third straight game with at least one.
For the Rams, Jackson is a solid starter, while kicker Josh Brown is probably the team's only other legitimate fantasy go-to option. On the other side, Brees is a no-brainer and Colston follows suit. Ivory has been strong lately as well, though Thomas' full-scale health might limit his opportunities. New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley should get plenty of leg time as well. Defensively, the Saints are a better choice among these two.
That sound you hear on the bayou is the Saints' engine revving up for a late- season run at a repeat, as five straight wins have pushed New Orleans back toward the top of the NFC heap. Though they're among the league's best stories and could ultimately see the defending champs in the playoffs, there's no reason to think the Rams present a major threat just yet.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 27, Rams 14
12/09 16:10:44 ET