COMMENTARY | Two years ago after the New Orleans Saints lost to the St. Louis Rams 31-21, I jokingly suggested that the only way the Saints would make the Super Bowl is by poisoning the water supply of every playoff team in the NFL. The point was that if the Saints had to go on the road in the playoffs, they would be returning home with nothing to show for it. This turned out to be true, although they put an admirable performance against San Francisco that temporarily put those sort of doubts to rest.
This year feels similar, and it's fitting that yesterday's latest hapless performance also came against the Rams.
When a team has a game as bad as the Saints did in St. Louis, it's natural to try to find the exact reason for the loss. In this case, much like the case on Monday Night Football in Seattle a few weeks ago, there are so many reasons that it's tempting to just call the game a wash and throw it to the side, forget about it and move on. In fact, that's exactly the case I made after the Seahawks game.
But after this game, it becomes less about an individual game and more about trends. And as exhausting as it is to keep repeating this, the Saints have seemingly done nothing to belay this reputation from building; so one more time, with feeling: the New Orleans Saints cannot win against quality defenses on the road.
People bring up that the Saints have the best road record since 2009 of any team in the NFL, and that's a cute stat, but you can't look at the Saints organization this year and not see it as a huge problem. This year has been particularly troubling for the team in that regard. All four of their losses have come on the road, and two of them have been in spectacular, embarrassing, good-teams-should-never-lose-in-this-way fashion. Just like two years ago, the Saints scored late to make the deficit look less humiliating, but make no mistake: this was a complete decimation. The Saints were manhandled the same way they manhandled the Panthers last Sunday in the Dome.
What explains this Jekyll-and-Hyde persona? It's no secret that teams seem to play better at home, with the possible exception of the Philadelphia Eagles. The defensive lineman penetrate better, the offensive linemen block better, and things just seem to go your way. Every team enjoys a little bit of home cooking, so it's natural that a team would be slightly better in the confines of their own stadium.
But "slightly" doesn't begin to describe the difference between the team's performance home and away. When the Saints are on the road, especially against a strong defense, they look like a college football team. The linemen are always overwhelmed, Drew Brees is pressured and makes poor decisions, and they consistently fail to give their defense the kind of cushion needed to play a balanced game. Seven of Brees' ten interceptions have come on the road. Only eleven of his 34 touchdowns have come there as well. Eleven and seven sounds more like EJ Manuel's numbers and less like one of the best quarterbacks of the past decade. And for a team that is designed to win games based on their high-powered offense, that isn't good news.
Worse news is the fact that next week, the single most important game of the Saints' season will be played away from the Superdome. The Saints need to beat Carolina to win the division title and have a first round bye. And while the Saints were dominant in their win over the Panthers two weeks ago, we know that the same team most likely won't show up to Bank of America Stadium.
I try not to be a Chicken Little fan. It's so easy to overreact to games, where every win punches a ticket to the Super Bowl and every loss is the worst one ever. Most of the time I try not to worry about the losses too much. But after the second road blowout in a row, it's hard to be optimistic about the Saints' chances next Sunday. The Panthers are too similar of a team to the Jets, Seahawks, and Rams: great front 7, physical defense, and an offense that can make you pay for mistakes. Drew Brees carved up the secondary in the dome, but there's no guarantee he will make those same throws; he may try to force the ball into double coverage or miss simple screens like he did yesterday.
At the end of the day, the Saints are a good football team. They're capable of putting up points no matter where they are - 27 in New England, 26 in Chicago - so there's no reason to automatically chalk up the game in Carolina as a loss. But Drew Brees himself said yesterday that they need to perform better on the road if they want to achieve their goals. And with every bad pass, every missed tackle, and every misstep on the road, the Saints are getting further and further from those goals.
Nathan Raby is from New Orleans and is a lifelong supporter of the Saints and everything New Orleans. He is the co-founder and writer of thefootbawlblog.com. He can also be heard on the Blog's semi-regular podcast Laces Out.
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