Black and white.
Night and day.
Home or away.
Win. Or loss.
The New Orleans Saints are like two different teams inside their ear-splitting abode or exposed to the great outdoors.
The first is dominant. The other can be dominated.
At home in their dome, fueled by rivers of sound cascading onto the field like an aural waterfall generated by the unbridled passion of their fans, the Saints take on another dimension. The sound makes their game go to 11 like Spinal Tap in shoulder pads with good songs (sometimes) blaring from the loudspeakers.
Sunday, faced with basically a must-win game with the lava hot Carolina Panthers, the Saints were ready with a bucket of ice water.
The Saints receivers ran routes in pirouettes around the NFL’s second-best defense. The Saints’ secondary covered the Panthers’ receivers so well even Cam Newton and his magic feet couldn’t escape the relentless drumbeat of pressure as he searched vainly for an open pair of hands. It sometimes took a village to chop down that 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame of his, but they brought him crashing down five times, his legendary escapability corralled by the firm of Galette, Jordan and Hicks.
In building an eight-game win streak, it looked like Carolina could do anything. Against the Saints, it looked like the Panthers could do virtually nothing well. Not nearly well enough, anyway, to wrench the NFC South Division lead out of the hands of a Saints team that has played from in front of the pack this entire season. A 31-13 Saints hammering was the same beatdown felt by teams here like Arizona, Miami, Buffalo and Dallas.
But what painted an additional layer of urgency on this particular showdown for the Saints was the fact that they have to go on the road — outside — and take on the Panthers in their backyard two weeks from now. The win against Carolina ensures that the Saints continue to hold all the important tiebreakers on Carolina: head-to-head (of course); best record in the division (the Saints are now 4-0 in the NFC South); best record in the NFC overall.
That means if New Orleans wins as it should at St. Louis next Sunday (in a dome) and at home Dec. 29 in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay (inside a certain giant cupcake-shaped structure on Poydras Street), it will win the division AND at least a No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. That’s no minor distinction since such a seed comes with at least one home playoff game attached.
The Saints didn’t just win against Carolina; they crushed. They spotted the visitors an encouraging 6-0 first-quarter lead before the roof (pardon the pun) caved in on them. Three straight Brees touchdown passes in the second quarter made it 21-6 and were testaments to the fact that while Carolina has Captain Munnerlyn on its roster, it wasn’t about to rally behind Captain Comeback and steal this win.
New Orleans is 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road, a respectable record except that the three losses include games at New York and New England that the Saints could have won and, more disturbing, a 34-7 loss last week at Seattle in which New Orleans didn’t seem to have a prayer.
The Saints’ dream of homefield playoff advantage has legs since Seattle came up short 19-17 at San Francisco to drop to 11-2. New Orleans may be one game back in the loss column but is really 1½ games back because of the tiebreaker that Seattle’s confidence-rattling win over New Orleans handed them.
Hey, with the Panthers’ hide tacked to the Superdome wall after Sunday night’s win, I like not only the Saints’ chances to win the division but grab that playoff bye and second-round homefield playoff game. If New Orleans wins at St. Louis and against Tampa Bay, it can render its Dec. 22 game at Carolina virtually meaningless. In the hyper-competitive NFL, that’s a job very well done.
The nagging issue is what if the Seahawks are waiting in that sonic clamshell they call CenturyLink Field like some giant grizzly bear, inviting the Saints to pay a return visit for the NFC title game.
In Seattle. In January. In the cold, damp Great Northwest.
Inside or out.
Jekyll or Hyde?
To survive and advance, eventually Saints are going to have to come out and play.
And play well. Like they do at home.