Lewis: Saints are hitting the road, but that beats going home

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) runs off the field after the Saints  42-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) runs off the field after the Saints 42-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Don’t blame the Dirty Birds.

Sure, Atlanta could have sent Tony Gonzalez out on a memorable note and helped the Saints secure a first-round playoff bye in the process Sunday.

But the locals have nobody to blame but themselves for having to go outside their comfort zone next weekend instead of resting in anticipation of a Superdome home playoff game — something they’re 4-0 in under Sean Payton.

“There’s never time to look back,” Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan said Sunday. “I know that Carolina won, so congratulations to them. I’d love to see them again.”

Obviously that will take some doing.

A wild-card round victory next week will earn the Saints a divisional-round trip to Seattle. And we all know how that game came out less than a month ago.

Carolina can only be met in the NFC title game, and getting that far is a daunting task to say the least.

Historically, road playoff venues have proved even less kind to the Saints than this season’s road games.

Five trips — to Chicago in the 1991 season, to Minnesota in 2000, back to Chicago in 2006, to Seattle in 2010 and San Francisco in 2011 — have resulted in five season-ending defeats. The Seattle game particularly stung because the Saints had the better record at 11-5 to the Seahawks’ 7-9 but had to travel because they did not win the NFC South, as is the case this year.

And the Seattle game also showed that the playoffs are a different animal.

“You play elite talent in this league every week,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t matter who your opponent is. And in the playoffs, everybody takes it up a notch because it’s single elimination. I don’t care who we’re playing; I’ll just figure it out tomorrow.”

In fact, the Saints seemed remarkably unconcerned about how their playoff seeding was playing out before, during and even after their game.

By edict of the coaches, the locker-room TV wasn’t showing other games — particularly the Atlanta-Carolina game. Guard Jahri Evans wouldn’t say whether anybody might have found other through other means in our wired world but maintained that the players were on the honor system not to say anything that might have slipped through the Twitterverse.

“It was 21-20?” an incredulous Junior Galette said. “Now I guess I’ve got something to be mad about.”

At any rate, the Saints handled their own business exactly like a team with a playoff berth on the line should, regardless of what was going on in the other games.

They scored on their opening possession — the first time that had happened in 10 games. And after the Bucs — who put up a worthy effort for a team whose playoff hopes were over in October and whose coach is either getting fired or taking the Penn State job — tied it on a flea flicker, the Saints went 80 yards in nine plays, with Drew Brees connecting with Jimmy Graham for the 16th time this season to put them ahead to stay.

“We moved the ball very effectively today,” said Brees, who finished 24-of-31 for 381 yards and four touchdowns — and also scrambled 9 yards for another score in the fourth quarter. “It’s been a while since we had a game with so many big plays, which is nice. We were sharp in all regards.”

The defense was just as effective, holding the Bucs under the Saints’ first 15 opponents’ averages for points (19.1) and yardage (306.7), which was already good for fifth and fourth in the league.

“When you think where we were a year ago today, man,” Galette said, recalling how the team set the NFL record for yards allowed in 2012. “It’s just night and day, and most of the guys were here last year. We know that feeling, and we don’t ever want to have it again.”

A dwindling number of core players also know the feeling of winning the Super Bowl.

And players like Brees, who will turn 35 on Jan. 15, know that the window of opportunity can close in a hurry — even if from this early vantage point the Saints look to be better next year than they’ve been this season.

“You definitely don’t know if you’re going to get another shot,” Brees said. “So you take advantage of every opportunity that you’re given. “I know we’ve got a great team, a great bunch of guys. It’s all right there in front of us, and there’s no place we can’t go and get a win.”