Saints Preparing To March into Philadelphia

When the New Orleans Saints take their playoff dreams on the road Saturday versus the Philadelphia Eagles, they’ll be testing themselves against familiar foes, trying to exorcise demons that have bested them before this season. The foes aren’t the human type, wearing the opponent’s jersey; they’re factors that have nothing to do with the strengths of their other team’s X’s and O’s.

The Saints, a famed Dome team at 8-0 this season at home, will be trying to prove they can indeed play on the road where they’ve suffered all 5 defeats this season. This time though, the Saints will also be battling freezing temperatures in the midst of one of the most hostile fan bases in the NFL, no less.

"We’re going to be prepared. We know what’s at stake," running back Pierre Thomas pledged. "We’ve just got to make sure we have everything on our end sealed up and perfected. We’ve got to study hard on this team in a short period of time, but I know our team is capable of doing that."

Under head coach Sean Payton, the Saints are 1-3 when temperatures dip to freezing or below.

Saturday’s forecast in Philadelphia calls for a high of 30 degrees, a low of 26 degrees and mostly clear skies.

Heading into this do-or-die Wildcard showdown, the Saints defense is allowing seven more points on the road versus at home, and the offense is scoring 17 fewer points in enemy territory than inside the Superdome.

Drew Brees’ Black and Gold offense is 4th in the NFL overall, 2nd in passing. However, his performance in New Orleans is largely responsible for that: 6 of Brees’ 12 interceptions have come in just three road games, and Brees has only scored 12 of his 39 touchdown passes away from the friendly confines of the Superdome.

 

"We’ve got to play better," right tackle Zach Strief said. "It’s not complicated."

The Who Dat nation hopes not, but their beloved Saints haven’t been able to correct the problems on the road thus far, losing their last 3 on the road against the Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, games that could have propelled New Orleans into a bye week and the NFC South crown.

Perhaps it starts with a mental change.

"We understand our last three outings on the road have not been our best performances," Brees said.  "At times you know you do have to kind of change things up so psychologically, and you say it is going to be different this time around."

The Saints practiced this week with music blaring from the sidelines out of head coach Sean Payton’s iPod, instead of the normal quiet, shattered generally only by the coaches’ screams and whistles. They’re now drinking green Gatorade instead of red and orange, adding more sauce and less meat to their traditional Cheesy Mac meal the night before the game, and they’ll be wearing new warm up suits when they arrive in Philadelphia.

 "Those are significant changes," Payton said. "We changed our Gatorade color. That’s a big deal. The night before, what you eat – that’s a big deal. The sweat suits. Those other ones were getting kind of raggedy to begin with anyway."

The Saints must also of course be concerned with the x’s and o’s of the recently surging Eagles, a team that started slow amidst some quarterback controversy, but is now playing hot under the direction of quarterback Nick Foles, with Michael Vick in the backup role.

Foles may have been known more for his resemblance to Napoleon Dynamite at the beginning of the season, but now he’s the wonder kid who tied the record for most touchdown passes in a game  {7} versus the Oakland Raiders in Week 9 and wrapped up November sporting the highest calendar-month passing rating in NFL History with 152.8.

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly likes to borrow a page from his college coaching days and send his team up tempo.

"It is hard to prepare for," Payton acknowledged. "It is hard to simulate in practice with a scout team. The pace is extremely fast, and so we will have our work cut out for us this week, just trying to replicate or get the same look as our scout team offense."

One of the biggest challenges for the Saints 4th ranked defense may be the lack of opportunity to sub players in and out of the game.

"You certainly have to be prepared to stay in the personnel you have, with them staying in the same personnel," Payton said.

The Eagles come into Saturday’s showdown averaging 417 yards a game, second best in the NFL, and 27.6 points per game, fourth best in the league.

"Chip Kelly came in from Oregon and brought that fast-tempo style of offense," linebacker David Hawthorne said. "They run a play and then their back on the line in sixteen seconds or something like that. He’s really introduced that style of play into the NFL, and it’s working for him."

One thing the Black and Gold has going in its favor: longevity of an experienced core. Veteran players, especially offensively, who have been here before, together as teammates.

"It is hard to keep rosters together in today’s NFL, and I think that we’ve been fortunate with health, Number 1, the durability of players," Payton said. "Each week it kind of varies who ends up with more touches, but there has been a lot of carryover with the system and the coaching staff and the players who are in it. We still have that veteran leadership that has been in these types of games."

Indeed, Drew Brees and his experienced crew of reliable weapons should be able to exploit the Eagles’ defense, which is giving up the fourth-most yards in the league (394.2) and allowing opponents to score an average of 23.9 points.

"We’ve been through a lot together," Brees said. "We know the expectation level. We know the preparation. I think there is a level of pride that comes along with that and accountability. You want to perform well for each other. You know how much we have invested. I would say it’s pretty rare that you have that many guys to be here for that period of time. When it is all said and done, if we can look back and say we did some pretty special stuff together: regular season, playoffs, championship. That’s what it’s all about."