COMMENTARY | In sports, we sometimes tend to find trends and statistics and turn them into undeniable facts.
If recent games show a particular pattern of being a certain way, fans extrapolate that it will always be this way. The problem with this is trends and patterns end; the sports world has so many dynamic and moving parts that you can't predict anything forever. The idea that these trends will predict the future only works if you believe that they will.
And that's why the New Orleans Saints' win on Saturday was such a good thing for the organization. Not only are they still alive in the NFL championship hunt, but they took the much-ballyhooed topic of their road struggles and put the concerns to rest, at least for this season.
During a close, hard-fought victory, the Saints did two things that no one thought they could do during the regular season: they could beat a quality opponent outside of the Superdome, and that they could use a running attack to do it. The Saints may have needed all 60 minutes to survive the contest, but they dominated the time of possession and controlled both lines of scrimmage. They won a road playoff game like you're supposed to.
A lot of football is obviously mental. Not just the game planning and preparing, but also the perception of your opponent and your identity. The more the media (this writer included) said that the Saints couldn't win on the road, the more the public believed it. And even if they denied it in interviews, it's possible that seeds of doubt crept into the minds of the Saints players as well. I mean, the evidence was there. The franchise had never won a road playoff game. They were 0-3 under Sean Payton.
It would be easy for the Saints to defeat themselves by believing that they were just a bad road team. That the team turned into a bottom-tier team, that Drew Brees became Kyle Boller on the road. It would have been easy to listen to the skeptics and roll over for a very good Philadelphia Eagles team whose offense is among the best in the league.
Sean Payton understands the mentality of the game, and that's why he made tiny changes to motivate the team. Popeye's Chicken in the locker room, a different flavor of Gatorade, new warmups -- these things could not be less associated with football performance. But Payton, with the flair of a college theater director, knew that these changes would resonate with the players and may somehow bring out enough motivation to change the outcome in his favor. Coach Payton, he of the "bring the wood" fame, again used symbolism to get his players' attention.
And he got the outcome he wanted. Behind a smart defensive game plan and a dynamic running attack, the Saints were able to slay the road woes dragon and move on in the playoffs. Was it because of those pregame adjustments? Can you really win a football game because you drink a different flavor of Gatorade? Maybe not.
But the power of positive thinking is a factor. A popular beer ad campaign is directly based on the same premise. Believing that the odds are stacked against you might be a deterrent. Conversely, ignoring the same may be the mentality necessary to get over the hump.
So with their first road victory under their belt, the Saints need two more to reach the promised land. What once seemed like an impossible journey now simply feels improbable and difficult. The Saints are playing with house money now; a loss at Seattle is expected. And, yes, the Saints have bad history in Seattle, losing their last two big games there. But as they proved this weekend, just because it's a trend doesn't mean it will predict the future.
And after next Saturday, the new trend might just be the Saints proving their doubters wrong every week.
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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