For the New Orleans Saints of the past nine seasons, losing consecutive home games hasn’t been an indication that a campaign is destined for disappointment.
New Orleans lost consecutive regular-season home games during the two most important seasons in franchise history, both under coach Sean Payton: when the Saints qualified for their first NFC title game in 2006, and then when they won their lone Super Bowl championship at the conclusion of the 2009 season.
It’s true they also dropped back-to-back home games during postseason-less, 7-9 years such as 2007 and 2012, when Payton was suspended in the wake of the bounty scandal.
Still, given that the Saints have reached the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance and then won the whole thing despite sending their home crowd away in disappointment twice in a row on occasion, it’s easy to understand why Payton and his team took back-to-back defeats at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Nov. 9 and 16 better than much of the rest of New Orleans did.
That was evident in the relaxed atmosphere during the open locker room periods at Saints headquarters in Metairie this week, and at news conferences held by Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
Nonetheless, as the 4-6 Saints prepared to host the 6-4 Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the Saints didn’t deny the urgency of avoiding the franchise’s first three-game slump at home since 2001 and re-establishing that the Superdome is in reality a difficult place for opponents to visit.
“It is important to ... defend your home stadium,” Payton bluntly said. “We have to be able to play better than we did the last couple of times out. ... Our players understand that (they need to) take advantage of the crowd noise, take advantage of the things that can really be an ally.”
It was of the Saints’ own doing that the crowd wasn’t an ally in a setback to Cincinnati, which New Orleans played after losing 27-24 in overtime to San Francisco thanks in large part to three turnovers by Brees. Against the Bengals, the Saints used up almost 16 minutes on their first three possessions and got only a field goal, a turnover on downs and a punt.
Defensively, the Saints permitted the Bengals to convert 9-of-13 on third-down situations, several of which were on lengthy drives. That helped Cincinnati seize a 27-10 victory, and it provoked the Superdome crowd to boo and jeer the home team at a couple of junctures.
It was an incomprehensible scene for anyone who had watched the Saints win 20 consecutive home games under Payton from the beginning of 2011 through the eighth week of this season.
It’s hardly ground-breaking to discuss the importance of winning home games. But it’s worth issuing a reminder about why that’s especially true for the Saints at the moment.
These Saints have won two of their past 11 away games, and the only way they’ve balanced out that lackluster mark is by either dominating at the Superdome or at least managing to win home contests they might have lost elsewhere.
Furthermore, with essentially no prayer for a wildcard, the only way the Saints crack the playoffs is by outracing Atlanta (4-7), Carolina (3-7-1) and Tampa Bay (2-9) for the NFC South division crown. That would in all likelihood position the Saints as the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs, and they’d welcome the No. 5 team (the better of the two wildcards) in the first round of the postseason.
That would be a more daunting proposition for the visitors if the Saints can revive the damaged notion of “the Domefield advantage.” For as complicated as pundits can make football, the keys to begin doing that again are simple.
“If we can get off the field and get the ball back to the offense, then we’re going to have success,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said, referring to the fact that New Orleans is No. 2 in yards gained per game in the NFL and No. 7 in points scored per outing. “Because when you get the ball back to (Brees) and the offense, good things happen.”
That’s true as long as Brees protects the ball better than he did against San Francisco, and as long as the Saints get more out of drives than they did against Cincinnati.
“To use that ... extra dimension that we have (had) at home ... the more points we put up (the better),” right guard Jahri Evans said. “The crowd’s happy, and they’re into it. As an offense, we always want to start fast, come out the gates and move the ball and move the chains. ... If you move the chains and keep the chains moving ... you’re going to get (field goals or touchdowns).”
Perhaps what gives the Saints their best hope of reasserting themselves at home against Baltimore is the time of day and place the game’s being played.
Brees has completed 73.1 percent of his passes for 4,580 yards and 46 touchdowns with four interceptions the past 14 times the Saints have had a home prime-time game (counting the playoffs). New Orleans has won all of those games.
For context, Brees’ 71.2 percent completion rate for the 2011 season was the best all-time. The 327.1 yards per game he has during the streak would equate to 5,234 yards in a 16-game season, which would be the fourth-best all-time.
“It is prime time ... (and) our fans always seem to rise to the occasion; our team always seems to rise to the occasion,” said Brees, who is 0-for-3 in his career facing the Ravens. If the Saints win Monday, he will become the third quarterback in history to beat every NFL team. “We need it more than ever right now.”
Indeed, they do.