It’s natural for the home crowd to at least grow quiet — if not bitterly boo — when its football team makes enough mistakes to fall behind by multiple scores.
That happened when the New Orleans Saints, already down 7-0 at home to Carolina on Dec. 7, turned the ball over twice on their first three plays and saw the deficit they were facing expand to 17-0 less than nine minutes into the game. Anyone who didn’t leave either sat in stunned silence or jeered at various junctures before the final whistle blew on a 41-10 Saints defeat, their fourth straight setback in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints understood that treatment. They deserved it, and it was the fans’ right to give it to them, the players said.
But if New Orleans (6-8) finds itself trailing early when it hosts the archrival Atlanta Falcons (5-9) on Sunday, the Saints politely ask their supporters in the Dome to go against nature.
Stay in your seat. Stay loud. Help the Saints get back in and take the game.
“We’re not going to finish until it’s in the fourth quarter and it says ‘0:00’ on the clock,” said veteran Pierre Thomas, the franchise’s career leader in catches (325) and receiving yards (2,584) by a running back. “We need the crowd to be there with us. No matter what, if it’s going good or going bad, we need the crowd behind us.”
The game that ticket-holders have access to Sunday could hardly be bigger. Since they form part of a division where no team can end the season above .500, a Saints victory over Atlanta and a loss by Carolina to Cleveland would give New Orleans its first division title since 2011 and a fifth berth to the playoffs in the past six seasons.
Alternately, a Saints defeat wouldn’t only mark the first time the team has lost five straight at the Superdome since it went 1-15 in 1980. It also would result in elimination from playoff contention if Carolina wins.
It could be that no other Saints-Falcons game has more closely resembled the conditions of the 1991 playoff game between the teams that Atlanta won in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, the ingredients are there for Sunday’s game to be another classic. Neither team is the class of the NFL in defense — the Saints had given up the league’s second-most yards at the beginning of the weekend, and Atlanta had surrendered the most.
That alone would hint at the potential for lots of yards and points. But there’s also the fact that New Orleans and Atlanta each have good offenses: The Saints have gained the NFL’s second-most yards and the Falcons have produced the seventh-most. And there’s the fact that 27 of the games between the Saints and Falcons since 1991 have been decided by a touchdown or less, even though New Orleans is 13-4 against Atlanta since quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006.
Little is guaranteed in the NFL or life, but betting that Sunday’s game will be high-scoring and determined by a razor-thin margin wouldn’t be the worst idea.
“(Seemingly) every time, it’s been close,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said this week. “It’s always been down to the wire, always we need a score or they need a score to win.”
Nonetheless, stuff occurs, and sometimes it’s enough to put the home team in a steep hole and its supporters into a virtual sleep.
That was rare during a stretch between the beginning of the 2011 season and Oct. 26 in which the Saints were undefeated in 20 games at the Superdome, including one in the playoffs, that Payton (suspended in 2012 after the bounty scandal) was on the sidelines for.
But this year, after beating Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Green Bay in the Superdome, the Saints have been outscored 129-71, have been outgained 1,775 yards to 1,494 and have turned the ball over seven times while taking it away only twice in consecutive losses to San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Carolina.
The Saints have prepared all week to be the ones doing the outscoring, doing the outgaining and taking the ball away. But they might not succeed right away and, if that’s the case Sunday, New Orleans is counting on the Superdome crowd to prove itself the edge that ultimately marks the difference.
It’s not just a platitude, the Saints said. It’s real, and they needed it to win against Tampa Bay on Oct. 5.
In separate interviews and unprompted, Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton and reserve pass-rusher Kasim Edebali both attributed the game-changing moment in New Orleans’ 37-31 comeback win against the Buccaneers to the 73,000-plus in the crowd.
Ahead 31-26 and at their 20 with 9:28 left in the fourth quarter to start a drive, Tampa Bay — which intercepted Brees three times — had a botched snap, a holding penalty, a delay of game and a false start while the Superdome reached ear-splitting decibel levels. The bewildered Buccaneers were pushed back to their 1-yard line before Saints pass-rusher Junior Galette sacked Mike Glennon in the end zone to give two points to New Orleans. The Saints subsequently booted a field goal to force an extra period and punched in a game-winning rushing touchdown in overtime.
“That’s when I first experienced how major of an impact the crowd can have,” said Edebali, an undrafted rookie out of Boston College. “The whole Superdome was filled with energy — there was nobody sitting down.”
“It’s crucial,” added Lofton, a Falcon for four seasons before joining the Saints as a free agent in 2012. “If we show a blitz or show a coverage (opponents haven’t seen before), they can’t communicate and check out of the play if our crowd is rocking ... and we love that.”
Perhaps the Tampa Bay game was an extreme example of what a crowd can give the home team. But if anyone can repeat the trick, the players said, it’s a Superdome crowd at a Falcons game where everything is on the line for the Saints.