NEW ORLEANS —
The situation was entirely different the last time the Rams played the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.
Coach Sean McVay and his 2018 team were on the rise when they defeated the Saints with a field goal in overtime to win the NFC championship game and advance to Super Bowl LIII.
“It was very loud,” tight end Tyler Higbee said of the environment, “and then very quiet at the end, which is a good thing.”
On Sunday, the stakes will not be as great when the Rams play the Saints.
Yet once again the Rams’ season is hanging in the balance.
The defending Super Bowl champions are 3-6, mired in a three-game losing streak and moving toward the brink of elimination from playoff contention.
“Nobody expected to be in a position where you’re 3-6 after coming off the season we had,” defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. “But we’re here now. … So, just got to try to find a way to dig ourselves out of a hole.”
With a road trip to play the powerful Kansas City Chiefs next week, a loss to the 3-7 Saints would almost certainly doom any postseason hope for the Rams.
Still, despite injuries suffered by star receiver Cooper Kupp and more offensive linemen — or perhaps because of that seemingly unending situation — McVay this week appeared less stressed when he met with reporters. It was a stark departure from previous weeks, when the 36-year-old McVay wore the angst on his face.
“Really?” he quipped Friday when a reporter noted the change. “Well, I’m glad I got you fooled.”
McVay’s calm exterior might be attributed to the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The 14th-year pro sat out Sunday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals because of a concussion, but he was cleared Friday and will start against the Saints.
Stafford has not played to his 2021 level. He has passed for eight touchdowns compared with 23 at the same point last season. His return could provide a confidence boost for a team that dropped into last place in the NFC West after the loss to the Cardinals.
Stafford, who has been sacked 28 times, will operate behind a line that will feature only one player — right tackle Rob Havenstein — who has started every game. Coleman Shelton is expected to start at center in place of injured Brian Allen. Shelton probably will be flanked by three players who were not on the Rams roster at the start of the season.
Last season, Stafford and the Rams rallied after three straight November defeats and won the NFC West before making a run to win Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
But that team was 7-4 when the turnaround began.
These Rams were swept by the second-place San Francisco 49ers and split with the third-place Cardinals. At best, they could finish 3-3 in the division if they sweep the first-place Seattle Seahawks.
The Rams are “not out of it yet,” cornerback Jalen Ramsey said.
“Last I checked, we still have a bunch of Sundays to play and if we win out, I’m sure we’ll go to the playoffs,” Ramsey said. “That’s how I think in my mind.
“I don’t think that’s unrealistic.”
But only if there is change, Ramsey said.
“We’ve got to take maybe a little bit more risks,” he said. “Got to have some luck on your side as well. That’s a fact.”
Linebacker Bobby Wagner played 10 seasons for the Seattle Seahawks before joining the Rams this season. Wagner has counseled younger players about how quickly fortunes can change.
“A lot of times when you try to be in a moment, or when you’re in a moment, it feels like everything comes crashing down on you, but it can be turned around in just an instant,” Wagner said. “One game, one stretch, it doesn’t matter.
“Anything can be turned around.”