It was fitting that the New Orleans Saints clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in front what might be the loudest fans in pro football.
The Dome’s reputation as one of the toughest places to play has only grown in recent years, and for good reason. Since the start of the 2008 regular season — and including postseason games — the Saints own the fifth-best home-field winning percentage in the NFL at 70.3 percent, according to USA Today.
And during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, the Saints are as good as anyone playing postseason games on their home turf — a perfect 5-0.
To put that in perspective, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, from 2000-16, home teams in the NFL won 57.1 percent of their games in the regular season and 64.7 percent in the postseason — that playoff number 11.8 percentage points higher than expected, even after controlling for the fact that better teams tend to get more postseason home games. Even with that in mind, New Orleans is far ahead of the curve.
The booming crowd noise, the artificial playing surface and the controlled weather in the Dome certainly have something to do with that. But Saints coach Sean Payton said that the Dome’s effectiveness has something to do with the skill of his squad, too.
“Not too long ago, it wasn’t a tough place to play,” he said. “Part of that is what kind of team you’re fielding, and when you get the combination of a good team and the crowd noise, then you’ve got something.
“It’s a storied venue, and yet prior, opponents didn’t look at it like a tough place to play. It’s changed, but it starts with getting your team better.”
In the five seasons prior to his arrival — all years without a postseason appearance — the Saints won 43.75 percent of their games overall and just 40 percent at home. During his 13-year tenure, that overall winning percentage has grown to 60 percent, with an even steeper increase in the team’s winning percentage in home games at 70.3.
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But the Saints have had a better regular-season home record than road record just seven of those 13 seasons, winning just 11 more games overall in the Dome than on the road during that stretch — aided by a pair of 8-0 home marks in 2011 and 2013.
This year, and during the 2009 Super Bowl-winning campaign, New Orleans was nearly identical in its dominance, no matter the venue, with 7-1 marks on the road and 6-1 marks in meaningful home games (excluding Week 17 losses with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs already locked up).
But when it comes to the postseason, that undefeated home mark since 2006, compared to a 1-5 record on the road in the playoffs, stands out.
Perhaps nothing can explain that disparity any better than Brees’ individual success in his team’s biggest home games of the year.
It has been quite a while since the New Orleans Saints have had their entire offensive line on the field together during practice.
The future Hall of Fame quarterback’s statistics take a significant jump in the Dome in playoff games, with his passing yards per game average (305.8) more than 23 yards higher than his overall career mark.
In those five victories, Brees has thrown 12 touchdowns to just one interception with a passer rating of 116.8 — a leap from his 97.7 average throughout his career. In comparison, his completion percentage in six road playoff games (61.4) is nearly six points below his career average to go with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions and a passer rating of 88.6.
The Austin, Texas, said he couldn’t explain the disparity, but Payton said the quarterback’s eye-popping numbers at home speak to his ability to perform under pressure.
“He’s extremely competitive and someone who knows how to win playoff games,” he said. “But there have been plenty of other situations relative to big games on the road or big games at home that aren’t playoff games where he’s played at such a high level.
“It’s part of the things that make him special.”
The Saints' own trend of naturally winning more at home while winning more overall during Payton’s tenure speaks to the four teams with better home-field winning percentages than the Saints since 2008.
All four — the Patriots, Ravens, Packers and Steelers — have won at least one Super Bowl in that stretch.
But that doesn’t mean opposing NFL coaches don’t see something unique in the Superdome atmosphere.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson is 0-2 visiting the Saints during his 10 years coaching in the NFL — including this season’s 48-7 thrashing — entering Sunday’s NFC divisional contest. After playing quarterback at UL-Monroe from 1987-90 and coaching four seasons of high school football at Calvary Baptist in Shreveport, Pederson is well-versed Louisiana’s passion for football and the edge their fans give the Saints.
Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters said on Sunday that he thought the Saints ran the score up in the 48-7 game in November.
“It’s an exciting city. It’s an electric city. They are passionate about the Saints,” he said. “I love the atmosphere and the excitement. It gets your juices flowing a little bit.
“The fans are right there on top of you, and of course having a roof over the top keeps that noise in.”
A.J. Klein, who’s in his second season with the Saints after spending the first four of his career with the Panthers, vividly remembers his first encounter with the Who Dat faithful. Carolina began his rookie season 1-3 before ripping off eight consecutive wins, including road wins over playoff teams San Francisco and Miami as well as at Tampa Bay and Minnesota.
The Panthers and Saints found themselves in a fierce division title battle entering their Week 14 matchup in New Orleans. But all the focus on a battle between rivals couldn’t drown out the roar Klein heard moments before the game.
Though he’s now heard it nearly two dozen times more, his initial experience with the thunderous Dome crowd right before kickoff still sticks with him.
“When Drew or whoever walked onto the field with their fist up, and they do the ‘Who Dat’ chant, it’s the type of stuff that gives you chills,” he said. “Growing up and playing in college, you just never experience that.
“It was the type of thing that sent chills down my spine, just ‘Wow,’ and it was awesome. Even though we were the away team, it’s still something cool to be able to play in front of.
“But it’s intimidating.”