METAIRIE, La. — Ndamukong Suh chose the “Dream Team” over the New Orleans Saints.
And now he gets to help decide if he made the right choice on Sunday when the top-seeded Saints host the No. 2-seeded Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox) with a trip to Super Bowl LIII on the line.
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The five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle had his choice between the two NFC powers this offseason when he visited with the Saints, Rams and Tennessee Titans after being released by the Miami Dolphins.
He ultimately chose to sign a one-year, $14 million deal with the Rams during their offseason shopping spree that also included Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, among others.
“We saw the moves they were making all offseason. Clearly they were trying to assemble a dream team, you know,” said Saints running back Mark Ingram, who was hardly the first to use that term to describe the 2018 Rams.
Ingram also talked Monday about the biggest stud on Los Angeles’ defense — tackle Aaron Donald — when he said “they have a lot of guys who can ruin your day.”
“Suh, Donald, [longtime Rams defensive end Michael] Brockers, those guys are as good as they come in this league. We have a lot of respect for them,” Ingram said. “Talib, Peters, the ‘backers, their safeties, they’re just a well-coached unit, they play hard, and they play fast.
“Hey it’s the NFC championship, man; you’re gonna play against another great team with some great players. So we just gotta focus on our game plan, our preparation and making sure that we’re all the best that we can be for each other.”
If this matchup didn’t quite feel inevitable yet back in March (when the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, among other contenders, were also assembling dreamy teams through free agency), it certainly felt that way back in Week 9. That’s when the 6-1 Saints beat the 8-0 Rams in a 45-35 track meet in the same Mercedes-Benz Superdome where they’ll hold Sunday’s rematch.
“They’re a really good football team,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We knew that when they came in here midseason. I had a feeling that we would be seeing these guys again. We aspire to be here. They aspire to be here. So here we are.”
Suh, who turned 32 last week, hasn’t necessarily been a game-changer for the Rams all season. But as ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez detailed, Suh was effective with 4.5 sacks, 19 quarterback hits and solid run defense. And he had perhaps his best performance of the season in Saturday’s 30-22 victory over the Dallas Cowboys and running back Ezekiel Elliott.
“He has a tremendous presence,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of the 6-foot-4, 313-pounder, who began his career with the Detroit Lions as the second pick in the 2010 draft. “He’s a real good football player, he’s explosive, he has size, he’s smart. Those are some of the challenges he presents.”
Pairing Suh with Donald — who has emerged as perhaps the NFL’s best overall defensive player — feels like overkill. Donald led the league this year with 20.5 sacks, 41 QB hits and 25 tackles for loss. Brees said earlier this season that a DT duo like that is “really unheard of at this level” and he hadn’t seen one like it since he was at Purdue and faced Georgia’s Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud in the 2000 Outback Bowl.
“Donald of course is having an amazing season,” Payton said. “That’s one of the challenges with this front. And it’s one of the reasons they assembled the front the way they did. Inside, they give you edge problems, they can run. So we’ll get on the tape here.”
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That could be the key matchup in Sunday’s game against a Saints offensive line that was maybe the best in the NFL when fully healthy for the first three months of the season before injuries started to take a toll.
The Saints’ line is fully intact now. But second-team All-Pro left tackle Terron Armstead just returned from a torn pectoral last week, and left guard Andrus Peat played this past Sunday despite breaking his hand in Week 17.
They held up reasonably well in Sunday’s 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles after allowing two first-half sacks against Philly’s terrific front four — led by another dynamic defensive tackle, Fletcher Cox.
Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk was a second-team All-Pro this season. Center Max Unger was selected to the Pro Bowl. And right guard Larry Warford was a Pro Bowler last season.
“They’re stacked, for sure,” Armstead said of the Rams’ defensive front. “Extremely talented, proven guys, a lot of notoriety, a lot of accolades that they’ve earned and deserve. We’ve just gotta come prepared.
“We’ve got a front five that we feel like we can put up against anybody in the league. We just played a great front in Philly. So this will be another challenge. And if we win this one, next week will be another one. That’s the point we’re at in the season. The best of the best.”
As for the Saints’ defensive front, they played great all season even without Suh — ranking second in the league in run defense.
But they could sure use him now after standout defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins suffered a torn Achilles on Sunday, according to a source. Rankins had a career-high eight sacks to go with his stout run defense. And they’ll have their hands full with Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson and a Rams run game that just pounded out 273 rushing yards against the Cowboys.
Now the Saints will count even more on starting nose tackle Tyeler Davison, backup tackle David Onyemata (who has also been a standout part of the rotation) and undrafted rookie Taylor Stallworth. They also re-signed veteran defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker to help fill the void on Tuesday.
As Armstead said, it’s that time of year where the matchups don’t get any easier.