Sunday, the New Orleans Saints prepare to battle the Los Angeles Rams with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The NFC Championship Game will serve as the pinnacle game in a long and intertwined history between the two franchises. It’s a match-up that also brings a bit of nostalgia to the Who-Dat Nation. On December 30, 2000, the rivalry reached an apex in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
The Breakthrough: The New Orleans Saints vs. the Los Angeles Rams
A Storied History
The New Orleans Saints entered the NFL’s Eastern Conference in 1967 as a member of the Capital Division. In their first ever regular season game, the Saints hosted the Los Angeles Rams in Tulane Stadium. The Rams would beat the Saints 27-13 and go on to win the Coastal Division, while the Saints would finish 3-11. The two teams would meet again in 1969 with a similar result.
The AFL and NFL merged in 1970. As a result, the Capital and Coastal Divisions were dissolved. With the realignment, the Saints and Rams would both join the NFC West with the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers, where they would remain until 2002.
Then, in 1971, New Orleans secured their first win over the Los Angeles Rams with a 24-20 home victory. However, victories over the Rams would be few and far between for the better part of the next decade. In fact, between that first meeting in 1967 and the end of the 1985 season, the Rams held a 32-8 advantage in the series.
A New Regime
In 1986, the New Orleans Saints hired General Manager Jim Finks and Head Coach Jim Mora. While the two would eventually bring the bottom-dwelling New Orleans Saints to credibility, it would also mark a shift in the divisional series with the Los Angeles Rams. During the Mora era, the Saints flipped the series and won 15 of 22 games against the Rams from 1986 to 1996.
The start of 1997 brought about two drastic changes for both franchises. The New Orleans Saints parted ways with head coach Jim Mora. Mora delivered the Saints to respectability and four playoff appearances. However, Mora was never able to bring the Saints past the Wildcard Round. As a result, Mike Ditka would be named the new Head Coach.
For the Rams, who, only a season prior had relocated to St. Louis, 1997 marked the hiring of Dick Vermeil and the birth of the Greatest Show on Turf.
An Upset in the Making
Mike Ditka was fired following a short, unsuccessful run with the New Orleans Saints. After finishing the 1999 season with a 3-13 record, Jim Haslet was hired as the new head coach in 2000.
On the other hand, the 1999 season for the St. Louis Rams ended significantly different as the team won their first Super Bowl by defeating the Tennessee Titans. It appeared the Rams were poised to repeat throughout 2000 season. With a 10-6 record, the Rams were first in the league in total offense, completions, passing yards, yards per pass attempt, passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns. They had the 1999 MVP Kurt Warner and the 2000 MVP and Offensive Player of the Year Marshall Faulk
The teams split the season series, and New Orleans owned the tiebreaker over the Rams. At 10-6, the Saints would win the NFC West, setting up a Wildcard match-up with the Rams in the Superdome. MVP Marshal Faulk would take the NFL’s most prolific offensive attack into the Superdome to face Aaron Brooks and a relatively unknown New Orleans Saints team. Brooks would be starting only his sixth game after taking over for free agent acquisition Jeff Blake who was injured in 11th game of the season. The Rams were not unfamiliar with Brooks. He had defeated them 31-24 in his first career start.
The game took place on Saturday, December 30, 2000, in front of a crowd of 64,000. The Saints, facing insurmountable odds, quickly surrendered a 17-yard touchdown when Kurt Warner connected with Isaac Bruce. A raucous crowd would help to turn the tide as the Saints would score the next 31 points. The offensive explosion started with Aaron Brooks connected with Robert Wilson for a 12-yard touchdown pass. Saints Wide Receiver Willie Jackson would account for 21 points with touchdown receptions of 10, 49, and 16 yards. Doug Brien would also add a 33-yard field goal.
Up 31-7, a collective sigh of relief blew over the Superdome. Their first every playoff victory seem to be a reality. Then, with 9:36 left the fourth quarter, the Rams found their identity. They scored 21 points within a seven-minute span to bring the score to 31-28. Warner found Ricky Proehl for a 17-yard touchdown and then connected with Marshall Faulk for a 25-yard touchdown pass. With 2:36 remaining, Kurt Warner would take it in himself to bring the Rams within four.
As a result, the crowd had been silenced. With thoughts previous playoff collapses, they sat in shock as the Rams comeback appeared assured. On the ensuing drive, the Saints punted the ball back to the red-hot Rams offense with 1:51 remaining. Consequently, the end to the Saints season seemed to be an inevitable fate.
Then, in a strange twist, the Rams Az-Zahir Hakim fumbled the punt return. Saints Fullback Brian Millne fell on the ball, securing the fumble. Finally, the New Orleans Saints first ever playoff win was also secured.
Aaron Brooks finished the game with 266 yards on 16 of 29 passing and four touchdowns. Willie Jackson had the best game of his career with six catches for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
Kurt Warner was 365 yards through the air on 24 of 40 passing with three touchdowns of his own. Isaac Bruce recorded 127 yards on seven receptions and one touchdown. With only 24 yards rushing, New Orleans native Marshall Faulk picked up 99 yards on seven receptions.
You never forget the first time. For Saints fans, the 2000 season was a first kiss, a first job, the first time taste of the open road after getting a license. It was the first time the black and gold felt post-season glory.
For the Rams, it was the one that got away. It was the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. It was the bitter taste that lingers. It was words that went unspoken, and the empty feeling after the heartbreak.
Subsequently, the Rams rebounded, reaching Super Bowl XXXVII the following season.
Now, with a trip the Super Bowl and the ultimate prize on the line, the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams will forever be connected and tangled up by a complicated history.
No matter the outcome, Az-Zahir Hakim and the playoff breakthrough, will forever hold a special place in the Saints history books and the hearts of Saints fans.
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