The New Orleans Saints are still undefeated at home and have lost just three times all season. So, it might be a bit of nitpicking to say the road could be a potential downfall.
“You win 13, 14 games now, and you’re trying to find something,” coach Sean Payton said Sunday. “When you start playing well on the road and home, you’re probably a better team and we’ve been able to do that. This will be a good challenge for us. Not just playing on the road, but traveling west.”
After beating Detroit 45-28 in the Superdome in the NFC wild-card round, the Saints will travel to No. 2 seed San Francisco for their game next Saturday. And of New Orleans’ three road losses this season, two were on natural grass, the surface they’ll play on at Candlestick Park, where the 49ers went 7-1.
“I think the Tampa Bay and St. Louis losses really helped us prepare ourselves on the road,” wide receiver Robert Meachem said.
The Saints, though, will have history against them.
Never has New Orleans won a road playoff game, the neutral-site 2010 Super Bowl notwithstanding. The Saints have lost twice at Chicago, at Minnesota and at Seattle, which came in last season’s wild-card round.
As for the team’s road struggles this season, they provide a cautionary tale.
They had to come from behind to beat Carolina 30-27 on Oct. 9. A week later, the Saints lost at Tampa Bay 26-20, failing to convert a scoring chance in the final minutes when quarterback Drew Brees threw an interception in the end zone.
Then on Oct. 30, the Saints lost to then-winless Rams 31-21 in St. Louis.
New Orleans was twice forced to hold off late-surging opponents, winning 26-23 in overtime at Atlanta and 22-17 at Tennessee on a red-zone stand that ended with a sack at the Saints 8.
In all, the Saints’ five lowest-scoring games have come on the road, three of the five coming outside.
Knowing that, Payton will change up the schedule this time. After normally traveling on Saturday for road games, the Saints will leave for San Francisco two days prior to the game, going on Thursday after practice and then participating in a Friday walk-through at Candlestick Park.
The idea is to give the players a day to acclimate to the two-hour time difference while also getting a feel for the field.
“You really have to plan for success and that’s one thing our coaching staff does a great job of,” Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said. “They’ll make sure our schedule is set up to the point where we get adequate rest, get adjusted and we get ready for the game.”
49ers defensive end Justin Smith found a blueprint that could help the 49ers shut down Brees.
“Defensively, we know we’re going to have to pressure Brees, hit him, make him uncomfortable,” Smith said. “You know, one of the games they lost this year was to St. Louis, and that’s why [the Rams] won.”
The previously winless Rams produced six sacks in a 31-21 upset of the visiting Saints on Oct. 30.