Vargas: Playoff spot in hand, Saints are ready for the road challenge

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- The Saints won big in the Super Dome on Sunday, but to make it to another Super Bowl the team will have to pwin on the road. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- The Saints won big in the Super Dome on Sunday, but to make it to another Super Bowl the team will have to pwin on the road.

“It’s all right there in front of us. There’s no one that scares us. There’s no one place that we know we can’t go to and win.” drew BREES, New Orleans Saints quarterback

Exactly one year ago, the Saints dropped to 7-9 after losing a meaningless game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, then they packed their bags and headed home for the offseason.

Coach Sean Payton had missed the entire year serving a suspension in the wake of the team’s bounty scandal. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had overseen a unit that gave up the most yards in NFL history and would lose his job within the month.

Fast-forward a year, and the picture isn’t entirely perfect. After getting Payton back from his punishment and starting out 5-0, the Saints had a 31/2-game lead in their division that went to waste when they lost five of their remaining 11 outings. They’re now the No. 6 seed in the playoffs and will at Philadelphia at 7 p.m. Saturday in the NFC wild-card round.

The Carolina Panthers (12-4), who started 1-3, overtook New Orleans (11-5) to win the NFC South, a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one playoff game after beating the Falcons (4-12) in Atlanta on Sunday. All of the Saints’ defeats came on the road, where they scored way fewer points and gave up way more yards than they did at the Superdome.

But the picture undoubtedly is prettier than it was 12 months back, and the Saints won’t apologize for it. After winning 42-17 against Tampa Bay (4-12) on Sunday, their coach’s 50th birthday, they’re back in the playoffs for the fifth time since Payton took over in 2006, and they finished 8-0 at home for the second time in franchise history — and the second time in three years.

“It’s very difficult to win 11 games in this league,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “It’s very difficult to make the playoffs. There’s guys that play years and years and years and never get in, so ... it’s special.”

The Saints are 0-5 all-time on the road in the playoffs, but they’ll take those odds.

Making the postseason was a difficult goal the Saints and 31 other teams set for themselves as the preseason arrived. So, standing among 12 teams that actually accomplished that goal, they believe they can survive all the trips they need to take, despite their recent away woes and their history of postseason travels.

Several players joked that the key to solving their road woes would be simply changing up the Gatorade flavoring, wearing different sweatsuits and changing the recipe for quarterback Drew Brees’ traditional pregame meal of Beefy Mac.

“It’s all right there in front of us,” said Brees, who threw four touchdown passes against Tampa Bay and ran in another score. “There’s no one that scares us. There’s no one place that we know we can’t go to and win.”

Certainly, Brees can point to his team’s rankings to back up that confidence. The Saints headed into Sunday with the NFL’s fifth-best offense. With Spagnuolo’s replacement, Rob Ryan, at the helm, they started the day with the fourth-best defense.

Against the Bucs, they gained 468 yards — 73 yards more than what they were averaging. They held the Bucs to 290 yards, below the 307 per game they were giving up.

No, it’s not exactly where they wanted to be — but they won’t apologize for where they are.

“We have a ticket to this tournament, and that’s all you can ask for at this time of year,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “If you’re in this tournament, you have a chance.”