The urge the Saints get to roll their eyes whenever the topic of “road woes” comes up is palpable, but they’ve been fighting it these days.
There’s no sense in ignoring how, after winning their first two games as visitors in 2013, they lost five of their next six before splitting two road playoff contests. There’s no sense in ignoring how the Saints averaged almost 16 points fewer when they traveled last year than when they were at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, how quarterback Drew Brees’ passer rating was almost 40 points worse, how they turned the ball over a dismal 15 times.
“Stats are what they are,” Brees said. “We obviously were nowhere near as good on the road ... last year.”
Yet when the Saints kick off in Atlanta at noon Sunday, it won’t only represent the start to their 2014 regular season. It’ll signal the beginning of a prime opportunity to turn the volume down on talk about their road record, if not mute it altogether.
Atlanta is one of the places outside of New Orleans where the Saints triumphed last year. It’s where coach Sean Payton is 6-1 since 2006 (he was serving his bounty scandal-related suspension when New Orleans lost at the Falcons in 2012), and it’s the first trip of three the Saints will make by Week 4.
The next two road games — Sept. 14 at Cleveland and at Dallas two weeks after that — appear winnable. Those teams last season went 4-12 and 8-8 and missed the playoffs — and that all gives New Orleans a great chance to match last year’s number of road victories before it’s time to flip the calendar to October.
The Saints of course have declined to discuss anything beyond Atlanta. But even perusing between the lines of their remarks, it’s clear they sense the occasion at hand as it relates to their road issues, too.
Payton this week said he and his staff studied the final sequences of some of the Saints’ tougher losses in 2013. Two stand out: at New England in Week 6 and at Carolina in Week 16.
Against the Patriots, the Saints had the ball and a four-point lead with 2:16 to go. But they failed to get a new set of downs and punted after taking only 1:13 off the clock.
That was enough for the Patriots to score a winning touchdown on their ensuing drive.
A similar scenario played out at Carolina. The Saints had the ball with a three-point lead twice with less than 4:52 to go, but they delivered two three-and-outs.
The second gave Carolina the ball back with 55 seconds left, and that sufficed for the Panthers to score a winning touchdown and clinch the NFC South title.
“We just paid close attention to finishing games,” Payton said. “There were times where you ... need a first down; we need to do a better job of that. That category would apply to being at home or on the road, but it just so happens that a couple of those times ... were on the road.”
Saints fans can rest assured the team has gotten a head start on that. It’s not merely because in the first road playoff victory in franchise history at Philadelphia in January they got the ball back with 4:54 to go, picked up three first downs and kicked a winning field goal as time expired.
They’ve also been blaring deafening, thought-interrupting music at practice since essentially the moment training camp began in late July. They brought out crowd-noise simulators at minicamp. When persistent rain fell at a portion of training camp held in West Virginia, the Saints forged through to expose players to elements they may face in some of the outdoor games on their schedule.
“If you make practice as hard as you possibly can, typically the game’s easier,” Brees said. “You kind of (get) that comfort level of, ‘Oh, we’ve been there. We have done that.’ ”
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan prioritized takeaways this preseason in a way that’s returned early dividends and could help secure any close road games in the upcoming campaign. After Ryan ordered his charges to scoop up every single ball that hit the ground in training camp, no matter if it was the result of an incompletion, the Saints recovered five fumbles and picked off four passes en route to a preseason record of 3-1, two wins of which were away from home.
New Orleans’ nine takeaways were the most in the NFL this preseason, an encouraging sign for a defense that gave up the fourth-fewest yards and points in 2013 but couldn’t do better than creating the fourth-fewest turnovers (19).
None of those takeaways was the responsibility of Saints safety Jairus Byrd, who was held out of several practices as well as all but one exhibition following offseason back surgery.
But that simply makes Byrd — a three-time Pro Bowler the Saints acquired in free agency in March via a lucrative six-year, $54 million contract — hungrier to get in on the act his teammates have been putting on.
Byrd has the most interceptions among players at his position since his rookie season of 2009.
“No matter where you are, anytime you’re starting the season, there’s a lot of anticipation and optimism,” said Byrd, who spent his first five years in the NFL in Buffalo and has not been to the playoffs. “It’s exciting.”