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Rams-Saints matchup full of playoff implications

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees is buying into the hype, if not fueling it.

The Saints are hosting the St. Louis Rams today in what, to the realist, might have the look of a potential mismatch between the defending champs, winners of five straight, and the improving but still mediocre Rams.

Then again, a promoter would not commit any truth-in-advertising violations by billing this as a compelling clash between two teams jockeying for playoff positions.

Brees is taking the latter view, and not because he’s worried about disrespecting the Rams. He’s simply going by his own experience.

“The last time they came into our building was in ’07 and they were 0-8 and they beat the you-know-what out of us,” Brees said. “We remember that. Last year when we played them, they gave us fits.

“They’ve always played us well since we’ve been here. They have a lot to play for. Typically whoever wins from week to week is the team that wanted it most and needed it most — and we both need it pretty badly right now.”

Oddly, the Saints (9-3), who sit a game behind Atlanta for the top record in the NFC, may need this game more than the Rams (6-6) do.

Because of current tiebreaker scenarios, the Saints likely won’t win the NFC South unless they pull ahead of the Falcons in the standings over their final four games. Otherwise, New Orleans, which was home throughout last year’s NFC playoffs, would at best open the postseason on the road, maybe even in St. Louis.

The Rams, meanwhile, could conceivably lose another game or two and still win the seemingly weak NFC West, meaning they would open the playoffs at home.

St. Louis entered Week 14 in a tie with Seattle (6-6) — a team the Saints beat by two touchdowns — for the NFC West lead. Unless either the Seahawks or Rams get on a roll during the last quarter of the regular season, a .500 record could very well take the division.

Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo sounded like he felt fortunate that an even record through 12 games had his club firmly in playoff contention.

“We’re excited that we’re still — quote, unquote — in the thick of things,” Spagnuolo said. “Our mind is really on winning the division. To do that you have to win some games on the road. You have to win some games down the stretch.”

At this point, the leaders of the NFC West are vulnerable to being labeled pretenders. The lack of respect they command was evident in the pointspread— Saints by 9 1/2 points.

The Saints do not seem inclined to entertain such thoughts. Their reasons go beyond their recent history with St. Louis. This season, two of their losses came against Arizona and Cleveland — teams with losing records.

“Football’s tough and it’s hard to win week in and week out,” Saints defensive end Alex Brown said. “What separates good teams and maybe middle-of-the-pack-teams I think are maybe one or two mistakes during a game. It’s not this big, big gap in between teams.”

The gap between the Rams and the league’s elite seems to be closing in conjunction with the emergence of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, who’s completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,653 yards and 17 TDs, and whose 10 interceptions are fewer than the 16 Brees has thrown.

“You can tell he has a great understanding of what their offense is. It doesn’t seem like they’re holding things back,” Saints safety Roman Harper said of Bradford, a former Oklahoma star. “I think Oklahoma and that spread offense really helped him out in seeing lanes and it seems like the same type of routes and concepts that he probably had in college. He seems very comfortable. ... He knows how to take care of the ball. He knows how to throw it away instead of trying to force things.”

Bradford’s growth has been helped by the Rams’ offensive balance, with running back Steven Jackson only 15 yards from his sixth-straight 1,000-yard season.

Although the Saints have won six of seven games, they’ve narrowly pulled out their last two wins on the road against a pair of sub-.500 teams in Dallas and Cincinnati. Both were games in which the Saints jumped out to two touchdown leads, only to fall behind and need a late score to pull it out. Turnovers cost them in Dallas and penalties in Cincinnati. Last week, New Orleans was penalized 11 times for 100 yards and responded by bringing in a crew of area football referees to practice this week.

The Saints have been able to overcome recent mistakes because Brees has strung together some of his best games of the season, throwing for 300-plus yards in five of six games.

The Saints also are hoping to see more from Reggie Bush after his ineffective return from injury in the past two games, while Pierre Thomas, New Orleans’ leading rusher last season, also is expected to return from a nine-game absence.

Then there’s rookie Chris Ivory, who has rushed for 254 yards and five TDs in his past three games.

Bradford and Co. could be challenged to keep up with all that, but the Rams rookie quarterback certainly sounds eager to find out.

“You always want to play against the best,” Bradford said. “To have the opportunity to go down there and play one of the best teams in the league is extremely exciting for us. We are looking forward to it.”

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