NEW ORLEANS, La. -- The New Orleans Saints were 13-yards away from a go-ahead touchdown and a Super Bowl berth on Jan. 20, 2019.
The infamous pass interference "no-call," and an eventual loss to the Los Angeles Rams in overtime of the NFC championship game followed and the Rams went on to lose Super Bowl LIII to the New England Patriots.
Both teams employed aggressive strategies in the following years to stay competitive. The Rams traded away draft picks and utilized free agency to acquire top players, and the Saints gambled on the small window left with their future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
The strategy worked for the Rams, who won the Super Bowl last year. Yet the Saints have found themselves further away with each passing season.
The Saints did not make the playoffs last season, as they were knocked out after the Rams squandered a 17-0 lead to lose to the San Francisco 49ers in the final weekend, giving the Niners the final playoff spot.
As the two teams prepare to meet Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX) at the Caesars Superdome, both are feeling the effects of what happens after going "all-in."
The Saints (3-7) and the Rams (3-6) have struggled this year because of injuries and depth, with the Saints in particular looking lost without former coach Sean Payton, who stepped away in the offseason.
Here's how the two formerly winning teams got to this point and what their future might look like:
How they got here
Rams: Los Angeles won the Super Bowl in large part due to trading high draft picks to acquire players such as quarterback Matthew Stafford and linebacker Von Miller. Even prior to 2022, Los Angeles used its first-round picks to add cornerback Jalen Ramsey and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. That model has led to a top-heavy roster, led by Stafford, Ramsey, defensive tackle Aaron Donald and wide receiver Cooper Kupp. To make the math work, the Rams have needed to draft well in the later rounds and let productive players sign with other teams because of salary cap constraints.
This season has seen a perfect storm of injuries to key players that haven't been easy to replace, highlighting a glaring lack of depth on this roster. The offense has struggled to perform consistently, something directly related to player availability, especially on the offensive line.
Saints: New Orleans spent the two seasons after the 2018 NFC Championship Game trying to make a last run with Brees, who turned 40 before that game. But Brees' arm and body eventually began to fail him, and he missed nine games in his final two seasons before retiring.
The Saints didn't address the future after Brees, believing that Taysom Hill could be the next starting quarterback (he was moved to tight end this year). Instead, they tried to add the missing pieces in free agency and restructured all their major contracts to retain Brees, pay WR Michael Thomas and add players like TE Jared Cook, WR Emmanuel Sanders and S Malcolm Jenkins (all of them were in the latter stages of their career).
This might have worked if not for the 2021 salary cap dip caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced them to shed more than $100 million in cap space. The Saints had to cut ties with productive young players such as defensive end Trey Hendrickson and safety Marcus Williams and replace them with bargains. Expensive players like Thomas have spent the majority of the last two seasons hurt.
Rams: The most recent (and most important) addition to the Rams' injury report is Kupp, who has accounted for 34% of his team's receptions this season -- the highest mark in the NFL. Kupp was placed on injured reserve because of an ankle injury earlier in the week and will miss at least four games.
But the bigger issue overall this season has been the health of the offensive line. The Rams have used a different starting offensive line in all nine games this season. According to Elias, they are the first team in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to use a different starting five-man offensive line combination in each of their first nine games.
And after an injury to Chandler Brewer, who started at right guard in Week 10, the Rams are expected to start a 10th different offensive line combination against the Saints. The Rams were without Stafford last week, as he went into the concussion protocol, but he is expected to play Sunday.
Saints: The Saints have had serious injury issues for two seasons straight. In 2021 they has a 58-player roster because of injuries and COVID-19. The Saints overhauled their conditioning staff in the offseason and fired longtime strength and conditioning coach Dan Dalrymple, but it hasn't helped.
The list of players who have missed significant time this season include quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Thomas, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Marcus Maye, kick returner Deonte Harty and running back Mark Ingram II, among others.
According to Spotrac, the Saints had almost $67 million in cap space tied up in dead contracts and injured players in 2021 and almost $66 million in those categories this season, which doesn't include the $9 million cap hit for Lattimore, who has missed five games and counting.
It's looking like the Saints will be missing a significant portion of their offensive line again, with potentially three starters out, while the availability of Maye and defensive end Marcus Davenport is up in the air again.
A look at draft picks
Rams: The Rams would be in line for a top-10 draft pick with their 3-6 record, but their 2023 first-round pick will go to the Detroit Lions as part of the Stafford trade. The team currently has six draft picks in 2023, although four are in the sixth or seventh rounds. The Rams, who haven't made a first-round pick since drafting quarterback Jared Goff in 2016, have every pick in 2024 except their seventh-rounder, although they have two in the sixth.
Los Angeles didn't trade any 2024 picks at the most recent trade deadline, but how it uses the first-round selection, whether it's kept to find a player in the future or dealt to fill a more immediate need, could provide insight to how the Rams view their current roster.
Saints: The Saints showed they were all-in with Brees by failing to draft a quarterback in 2018, instead trading up for Davenport, a talented but often injured player.
The Saints have drafted 27 players since the 2018 draft and 11 are still on the active roster (Davenport, Tre'Quan Smith, Kaden Elliss, Cesar Ruiz, Adam Trautman, Payton Turner, Pete Werner, Paulson Adebo, Landon Young, Chris Olave and Alontae Taylor) and nine are starters or significant role players. The trio of Erik McCoy, Trevor Penning and D'Marco Jackson are currently on injured reserve.
The Saints' failures at drafting a quarterback have proved to be their biggest mistake, and because they sent their 2023 first-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles to get Olave, it could haunt them for years.
Rams: Before the season, it looked like the Rams had extended their championship window by signing Stafford and Kupp to contract extensions and re-working Donald's contract to keep him in Los Angeles. Los Angeles also ensured coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead would be around for the long-term by signing both to contract extensions.
One subpar season certainly doesn't mean the championship window is closed, but it may have shown some challenges of using this roster-building approach. Los Angeles might choose to add more offensive line depth, a star running back or more pass rush help this offseason. The Rams have been known as an innovative franchise and are undoubtedly looking for the next advantage in team building.
Saints: The Saints are going to be digging themselves out of a hole for a long time. Even though the new TV deals will raise the salary cap, there are some projections that have them $60 million in the red next offseason. That means the Saints will either have to push contracts back yet again and retain aging players for another year or cut ties with multiple veterans again (which won't even save them much money because of the nature of their contracts). That could make finding a quarterback in free agency exceedingly difficult, and without a first-round pick, drafting one won't be easy either.
The Saints' future certainly isn't as rosy as it was with Payton and Brees, at least not for now. It's unlikely they'd move on from coach Dennis Allen after one season barring a locker room mutiny down the stretch, so the Saints have to work with what they've got.
There is one way Payton could still help them, however, as the Saints still hold his rights. If and when he returns to coaching, the Saints will get some sort of compensation from whatever team hires him. If it's a significant draft pick, they could try to use that for a quarterback or significant future piece.
Where do the Saints stand now?
The Saints have learned the hard way what life is like without a championship quarterback, starting four quarterbacks last season and two this season.
Allen announced that Andy Dalton would start again this week despite the team's struggles the last two games and hints they could return to Winston at some point, but Winston said Friday that losing his spot "hurts my soul."
Allen admitted that the quarterback situation is a "hot-button topic" because of weekly questions regarding whether the team should play Dalton or Winston, who has not fully recovered from early-season injuries.
The fact that the topic is being brought up shows the long-term issues the Saints at the position, with Winston signed through the 2023 season (in a contract that was only inked after the Saints could not get Deshaun Watson in the offseason) and Dalton is on a one-year deal.
As for this season, the Saints aren't mathematically out of the playoffs, but things feel fairly bleak. The Saints traded C.J. Gardner-Johnson to the Eagles at the beginning of the season, and he has a league-leading six interceptions (the Saints have two as a team). In contrast, the Saints' 2022 free-agent additions have been underwhelming, particularly Maye, who has already missed four games.
The Saints signed Maye through 2024 and are likely tied to him through at least next season because of the contract structure. They are likely tied to free agent addition Tyrann Mathieu as well.
The lone bright spot offensively is Olave, who has played well enough to warrant Rookie of the Year consideration. He could be the eventual replacement for Thomas, who will count $28 million against the 2023 salary cap and has played only 10 games in the last three seasons
The Saints would have to almost win out with an injury-compromised roster to finish the season with a winning record. That's with road games against the Niners, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Eagles ahead.
How the locker room responds will likely say a lot about Allen's outlook going forward. The Saints are saying the right things right now, but there's a long half of the season still ahead.
"Guys are sticking together," Dalton said. "At the end of the day, the whole goal is for us to win this week. That's the mindset this team has, that's the mindset everybody in this building has. As tough as this season has been, we're still in a good place."