Of the two major obstacles they must negotiate to survive their wildcard-round visit to Philadelphia on Saturday night, the Saints think they’ve found the solution to one of them.
They’ll see if their afflictions playing away from the Superdome are psychological and can be fixed by wearing different warm-ups; changing the Gatorade flavor from fruit punch and orange to lemon-lime; and switching up what’s served for dinner the night before the game, coach Sean Payton said Monday, confirming what some of his players seemed to be joking about after their 42-17 win against Tampa Bay (4-12) a day earlier.
However, precisely how to counteract the ballyhooed up-tempo offense the Eagles (10-6) run under coach Chip Kelly was something the Saints (11-5) were still in the early stages of planning Monday.
“They run a play, and they’re back on the line of scrimmage within 16 seconds or something like that,” Saints linebacker David Hawthorne said of a Philadelphia team that claimed the NFC East crown with a win at Dallas on Sunday. “(Kelly) has really introduced that style of play to the NFL, and it’s working for them.”
Hawthorne and his teammates will be battling an Eagles offense that’s ranked second in the league (417.2 yards per game) under circumstances that are less than ideal, for reasons that by now couldn’t be more well-documented.
Temperatures at kickoff are expected to be below freezing. And the Saints are 2-6 in games that Payton coached, the starters played and it was 40 degrees or colder. They’ll also be away, where they’re 3-5 this year and are 0-5 all-time in wildcard, divisional or conference championship games.
As of late, the Saints have also gained and scored significantly fewer yards and points, and they’ve given up significantly more points and yards on the road than they have at the Superdome.
Because the euphemism they’ve heard uttered most by reporters this year is “road woes,” the Saints are uniformly preaching the same message to anyone who brings the topic up: they’re changing what they wear, what they drink and what they eat, and that’s that.
“Those are things that are important,” Payton said, not letting on if he was kidding or not.
A day earlier, wide receiver Lance Moore emphasized the importance of both the sweats and providing Popeyes fried chicken on the Saints’ flight to Philadelphia.
“We’ll be sweet, man,” said Moore, sending a loud-and-clear message that the Saints were done with questions about their issues away from the Superdome.
They were more open to talking about the challenges Kelly’s offense, which rarely huddles up, poses to a fourth-ranked defense that likes to make mass substitutions often.
“We’ll probably keep a couple of packages in longer than they’ll usually be in,” Hawthorne said. “If they sub, then obviously we get an opportunity to sub, but if they’re just tempoing us, we’re going to have to try and keep it rolling.”
Payton said that will be hard for the Saints 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,” he said.
Payton spoke about the Eagles offense similarly to how other coaches describe the Saints’ attack, saying they force opponents to “defend the whole field.”
The Saints coach referred to running back LeSean McCoy, who finished the regular season atop the NFL in rushing yards (1,607) and yards from scrimmage (2,146) while tallying nine scores on the ground as well as two touchdown receptions.
Payton also mentioned quarterback Nick Foles, who tossed 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions and posted a league-best passer rating of 119.2 in 13 games this year, 10 of which were starts.
But neither the cold, Kelly’s fast-paced offense nor the fact that Philadelphia opened as a 2.5-point favorite are enough to convince the Saints they’re underdogs.
New Orleans’ offense, like its defense, is ranked fourth in the league. Running back Pierre Thomas said the Saints can conquer their road struggles by avoiding anything resembling the 17-0 deficits they faced in recent defeats at Seattle and St. Louis.
As for the frigid temperatures, “I’m not worried about the cold,” said Thomas, who grew up in chilly Chicago. “Actually, out there playing, I’m sweating so much my body’s overheating, I kind of need that cool air to cool me down.”
Manning record in question
Questions have surfaced about whether Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on Sunday actually broke the single-season passing yardage record that Drew Brees set with the Saints in 2011. The Big Lead website published a video clip showing a Manning throw that was counted as a 7-yard pass may have been to a receiver behind him.
The NFL routinely adjusts stats after games, and people are waiting to see if the NFL will re-classify the play as a lateral followed by a 7-yard run. If they do, Manning will have passed for 5,470 yards this season, not 5,477, and Brees would still own the record of 5,476 yards. Manning was pulled out of Denver’s 34-14 win in Oakland immediately after he was credited with breaking the record by a single yard.