NEW ORLEANS — One way or another, the NFC championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints will be won by a coach named Sean, with an Irish surname, who designs and calls plays for one of the most innovative and productive offenses in the NFL.

The ties between the Saints’ Sean Payton and the Rams’ Sean McVay go well beyond a shared name.

“We both cut our teeth in this league under Jon Gruden,” Payton said. “That (Rams) staff – there’s a ton of guys that we’re friendly with and that we know on that staff, guys who we have worked with, and Sean and I have a real good relationship. He is an engaging guy, a fun guy to be around.”

Gruden, the Oakland Raiders coach, was the offensive coordinator with the Eagles in 1997 when Payton was hired as quarterbacks coach. In 2008, Gruden was the head coach in Tampa Bay when he hired McVay as a receivers coach.

During the past two seasons, Payton and McVay have led their teams to the playoffs with dynamic offenses, thanks in part to elite quarterbacks – Drew Brees with New Orleans (14-3) and Jared Goff of Los Angeles (14-3).

Both coaches have acknowledged they watch each other’s offensive film nearly every week – not just because of the possibility of playing against one another, but because they’re looking for good ideas.

And then there are some connections on the roster and coaching staff. One of the Rams’ top receivers, Brandin Cooks, was Payton’s first-round draft choice in 2014. Rams running game coordinator Aaron Kromer is a former running backs and offensive line coach under Payton, including on the 2009 Super Bowl-winning squad.

Players on both teams praise their coach’s intangible feel for how a game is developing.

Saints Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead extolled Payton’s “fearlessness” in his play calling and said the coach has “so much belief and confidence in us and the system that we can go out and make a play no matter the down and distance.”

Goff mentioned how McVay sends in plays “with confidence and having a good feel for everything.”

“There’s certain moments in games where being a good play caller – you can’t teach it – but there’s certain moments where you have to go for that dagger or you have to pull back a little bit,” Goff continued. “There’s just different ebbs and flows in games. I think he’s got a great feel for that.”

NOTES: Saints tight end Ben Watson won’t play Sunday because of appendicitis, according to media reports. The former Patriots tight end, a 15-year veteran, is planning to retire after the season.


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