|Darren Sproles & Co. last played outside Dec. 11 in Nashville and beat the Titans 22-17. (Getty Images)|
Sean Payton and Drew Brees have transformed the New Orleans Saints from a franchise with a checkered past of mediocrity to a perennial power in the NFL in a six-year span. They've amassed NFL record after NFL record and have shattered nearly every negative trend ever surrounding the Saints.
Yet one remains.
It's pretty amazing to think a Super Bowl-winning franchise that's made the postseason three consecutive seasons and four times under Payton has never won a road playoff game. And no, we're not counting Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints are 0-2 in road postseason games in the Payton era and 0-4 overall. Mr. Playoffs himself -- Jim Mora -- fell on the road with the Saints on one occasion, and Jim Haslett another.
Payton, of course, is underplaying it this week as the Saints will play the 49ers on Saturday afternoon at Candlestick Park, a vastly different arena than the cozy Superdome.
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"I haven't really looked a lot statistically with the indoor-outdoor thing," Payton said. "I know a lot will be made of us playing on the road, the fact that the Saints haven't won a road playoff game, etc. Look, each week we try to get ready and put our players in the best position to get them ready for the environment they're going to play in. We travel well, and I think that comes with being a better team."
The numbers are pretty drastic.
The Saints are 9-0 at home this season, including the playoffs, and a respectable 5-3 on the road. So not awful by any means. The offense, though, takes a significant dip when it's away from New Orleans. The Saints averaged 41.6 points in their nine home games. Their production fell by more than two touchdowns as New Orleans averaged 27.25 points in its eight road games, and only (which is relative and may only apply to the Saints, Packers and Patriots) 25.8 points per game in five outdoor games this season.
A more potent running game may be the most significant difference for this season's road playoff test in San Francisco. It's an element the Saints didn't possess as much in the 2006 season with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush carrying the load and definitely didn't have last season when Bush, Julius Jones and DeShawn Wynn were the tailbacks in last year's loss in Seattle.
Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory have given the Saints stability in the backfield as New Orleans finished the season sixth in the NFL in rushing with 2,127 yards on the ground. The trio sparked the Saints for 164 of the team's 167 rushing yards last week against Detroit. But the outdoor road trend affected the running game, too, with an average of 114.8 yards in five outdoor games, which is nearly 20 yards per game worse than New Orleans' overall rushing average this season.
Defensively, the Saints have surrendered 24.4 points per game on average on the road outdoors. New Orleans has only played outdoors once in the last 12 weeks.
Cornerback Jabari Greer was asked why the media shouldn't make a big deal this week about how every Saints loss this season has occurred on the road: "Every game brings on its own life. We feel like we have had some success on the road. Those losses were early when we were creating our identity and creating who the 2011 New Orleans Saints were going to be. I believe that we have established who we are.
"We are continuing to work to get better. When we take it on the road, we just have to continue to do what we do -- run the football, be effective in the passing game, try to create some turnovers and swarm to the football. It doesn't matter if we play at home or away, I think we've established our identity as a team. No matter the venue, we're the same people."
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma added: "Obviously the playoffs are winner go home and teams are literally fighting for their lives. When you talk about win or go home, I don't think that's an issue. I think it's about executing, planning and doing what it takes to win the game.
"Being on the road, it just so happens that it's San Francisco. They're the No. 2 seed and they've done a great job of earning that spot and that seed. At this point in time, you're talking about two very good teams. At the next spot, we're the number three seed. I don't think it matters where we play."
Not even Brees has been immune to a downward trend when venturing away from the Dome. The yards have been there for Brees when he's outdoors as he's thrown from more than 300 in all five outdoor road games for a combined 1,849 yards. But Brees only threw for nine touchdowns and added six interceptions.
"It's something that people like to talk about, but we just look at it like another game, whether it be indoors, outdoors, West Coast, north, south, east, west, whatever," Brees said. "If there's elements to be dealt with, we keep those in mind. We have a plan for those things. But really, we're just about worrying about the things we can control.
"The fact that it's on the road, which is hard enough in this league. You're going to play the two seed, a physical 49ers and a 13-win team, a team that's had a phenomenal year. As I study their defense, they're one of the best defenses in this league. So the challenge is huge for us, either way, wherever you play them. It makes it tougher to play in that hostile environment."