New Orleans Saints defensive back Trevin Wade (30) breaks up a pass intended for Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson (83) last Sunday in New Orleans. (Photo: Derick E. Hingle/USA Today Sports)
The New Orleans Saints think they have a couple of ways to change their bad luck on the road, where they dropped five of six games since early October, going into the postseason.
When the Saints clinched their playoff berth last Sunday with a 42-17 blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the players had already figured out what they will do to hopefully turn things around.
The Saints (11-5) know that they’ll have to take care of the ball, which has been a problem for them on the road, when they take on the Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) in an NFC wild-card game tonight in Lincoln Financial Field.
While it’s no joking matter, the Saints were ready when the questions about their 3-5 road record came. They say changing their warm-up suits, the color of their sports drink and the choice of Drew Brees’ favorite meal the night before the game will do it.
They were only kidding, of course.
The road problems cost the Saints a chance to earn a top-two seed and a first-round bye as well as at least one game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they were 8-0 this season for the second time in three years.
They know it’s going to take a concerted effort on both sides of the football, especially when it comes to an offense that has committed 10 turnovers in their last five road losses.
Four of those giveaways contributed to early 17-0 deficits in Seattle and St. Louis, which resulted in 34-7 and 27-16 losses, respectively.
So hanging on to the football and keeping it out of the hands of Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense is more important than what they wear or what they eat and drink.
Saints coach Sean Payton said that offense will be the most difficult part of the road trip because it’s hard to simulate in practice.
“The pace is extremely, extremely fast, and so we will have our work cut out for us this week with just trying to replicate or get the same look as our scout team offense,” said Payton, who’s 0-3 in road playoff games since taking over in 2006.
“There is a lot of variety,” he said of Kelly’s offense.
“You have to defend the whole field. They can attack you down the field.”
The Saints had four players with 70 or more receptions this season, which is the first time that’s happened in NFL history.
Tight end Jimmy Graham had a team-leading 86 receptions, while running back Pierre Thomas had a career-high 77 catches. Wideout Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles rounded out the foursome with 75 and 71 grabs, respectively.
That group accounted for 309 of Drew Brees’ 446 completions and 3,275 of the team’s 5,162 gross passing yards.
While everyone knows that the Saints rely on their productive offense heavily, their defense has been a huge surprise this season.
That side of the ball, under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, had a hand in their 11-5 record by finishing fourth in total yards allowed, points allowed and sacks.
They also allowed just 105 points after halftime — 46 in the third period and 59 in the fourth — in their 16 games and will try to keep it going in the playoffs.
Their 105 total was second in the league to the 101 second-half points surrendered by the Seattle Seahawks, who led the NFL in scoring defense and fewest yards allowed.
The Saints’ defense, which allowed an NFL single-season record 7,042 total yards in 2012 (440.1 yards per game), completed last week the best turnaround since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Under Ryan, the Saints finished the regular season allowing 4,891 yards — 2,151 fewer than in 2012 — which averages out to 305.7 yards per game, which ranked fourth in the league.
The 134.4 yards per game improvement surpasses the 97.9 yards per game improvement between 1997 and 1998 by the Oakland Raiders.
“There is an ownership to it now,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in crediting Ryan and the players. “Players are believing what they are doing and feel good about what they are doing. … That confidence becomes contagious.”