How will the Saints handle playing at Candlestick?
It might be a bit of nitpicking to say the road could be a potential downfall for the 14-3 New Orleans Saints. But the Saints just aren’t quite the same team away from the Louisiana Superdome, and they never have won a road playoff game as they take their high-octane offensive attack to San Francisco this weekend for a NFC semifinal showdown against the 49ers and Candlestick Park.
The Saints are 0-4 in their history in NFC playoff games on the road. Their only postseason victory away from home came two years ago in Super Bowl XLIV, which was played at a neutral site at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
''You win 13, 14 games now, and you're trying to find something,'' coach Sean Payton said. ''When you start playing well on the road and home, you're probably a better team and we've been able to do that. This will be a good challenge for us. Not just playing on the road, but traveling west.''
After beating Detroit 45-28 in the Superdome in the NFC wild-card round last weekend, the Saints will travel to No. 2 seed San Francisco on Saturday in a divisional-round showdown. And of New Orleans' three road losses this season, two were on natural grass, the surface they'll play on at Candlestick Park, where the 49ers went 7-1, their only loss coming in overtime against Dallas.
''I think the Tampa Bay and St. Louis losses really helped us prepare ourselves on the road,'' wide receiver Robert Meachem said.
The Saints, though, will have history against them.
The Saints have twice lost playoff games at Chicago and once at Minnesota. Their other NFC playoff road loss came last year at Seattle, where – as defending Super Bowl champions – they were upset by a Seahawks team that had finished 7-9 in the regular season.
As for the team's road struggles this season, they provide a cautionary tale.
They had to come from behind to beat Carolina 30-27 on Oct. 9. A week later, the Saints lost at Tampa Bay 26-20, failing to convert a scoring chance in the final minutes when quarterback Drew Brees threw an interception in the end zone.
Then on Oct. 30, the Saints lost to then-winless Rams 31-21 in St. Louis.
New Orleans was twice forced to hold off late-surging opponents, winning 26-23 in overtime at Atlanta and 22-17 at Tennessee on a red-zone stand that ended with a sack at the Saints 8.
In all, the Saints' five lowest-scoring games have come on the road, three of the five coming outside.
Knowing that, Payton will change up the schedule this time. After normally traveling on Saturday for road games, the Saints will leave for San Francisco two days prior to the game, going on Thursday after practice and then participating in a Friday walk-through at Candlestick Park.
The Saints are just 22-11-2 in their history in games at San Francisco. But they have won their past two games and Candlestick Park, including 25-22 in a Monday night game last season when the Saints kicked a field goal in the final seconds to stretch their overall winning streak over the Niners to six consecutive games.
The 49ers have not beaten the Saints since routing them in New Orleans 38-0 in the 2001 season finale.
The idea of leaving early for San Francisco this time around is to give the players a day to acclimate to the two-hour time difference while also getting a feel for the field.
''You really have to plan for success and that's one thing our coaching staff does a great job of,'' Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said. ''They'll make sure our schedule is set up to the point where we get adequate rest, get adjusted and we get ready for the game.''
AS SOON AS THE SAINTS were safely in control of Saturday night's game against the Lions, it didn't take long for thoughts to turn to the next game against the 49ers.
Not the Saints, but the fans and media who almost immediately started thinking about the NFL's No. 1 offense going against the NFC’s top-ranked defense –including the NFL’s top run-stopping unit – in a divisional-round showdown between two of the NFL’s best teams this year.
The NFC West champion Niners and NFC South champion Saints both finished 13-3 during the regular season. Only the 15-1 Green Bay Packers – the team expected to meet the winner of Saturday’s game in the Jan. 22 NFC Championship Game – were better.
While the Saints' matchup with the Lions was an impressive offensive display, as expected, Saturday's game in Candlestick Park should be a showdown of the Saints' offense vs. the 49ers' defense.
After struggling a little bit in the first half of their matchup with the sixth-seeded Lions, the third-seeded Saints got the offense in gear in the second half to roll to a berth in the divisional round.
The Saints warmed up for the 49ers by doing what they've done for much of the regular season – piling up points and records – while stretching their winning streak to nine consecutive games.
The Saints, who exploded for 35 second-half points after trailing 14-10 at halftime, are expecting a much stiffer test in San Francisco, The 49ers allow just 14.3 points per game – which was second in the league only behind Pittsburgh's 14.2.
The Saints' rout of Detroit was fueled by an NFL-record 626 yards of total offense, which broke the San Diego Chargers' record that had held up for 48 years. The Saints also combined with the Lions to establish a playoff mark of 839 passing yards and Brees through for 466 yards.
The two offensive-minded teams also tied the all-time postseason mark of 1,038 total yards set by the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills in 1995. They would have broken that record if not for some kneel-downs by Brees at the end of the game that went for lost yardage.
But records and numbers were the last thing on Saints coach Sean Payton's mind after they coasted to the win – their 10th double-digit victory of the season and fourth in as many weeks.
"We're just focused on winning, we're not focused on yards and records," Payton said afterward, perhaps making sure no one forgot about the well-rested and second-seeded 49ers.
"Seriously," he said, "the task at hand is to find a way to score one more point (than the opponent), and we made some plays in the second half."
THE SAINTS CONTINUE TO GET BETTER running the ball, which could serve them well against San Francisco’s stout defense.
The Saints had nearly a 50-50 pass-run ratio against the Lions as they ran the ball 36 times for 167 yards and three TDs while throwing it 43 times.
That follows a pattern that started late in the season, which helps keep defenses off balance and makes Brees even more effective.
For all their prolific passing this season, the Saints also finished the season ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing offense and fourth in rushing average.
The Saints had four players rush for 374 yards or more, though rookie Mark Ingram – who finished the season with 474 yards on the ground – will miss the playoffs due to a foot injury.
But New Orleans’ rushing attack hummed along just fine without Ingram against the Lions, when Darren Sproles (603 yards rushing during regular season, 6.9 average), Pierre Thomas (562, 5.1) and Chris Ivory (374, 4.7) combined for 164 yards rushing on 31 carries (5.3 average) with Sproles rushing for two touchdowns and Thomas rushing for one.