By Dan Pompei
For the New Orleans Saints to get to where they want to go, they will have to overcome discomfort and unfamiliarity. They probably will have to win in Seattle, if not on Monday, then on January 19. They probably will have to win when they can't feel their toes and they can't stop their noses from running. And they probably will have to win amidst wind, chaos and substandard field conditions.
That is a challenge for this team more than most, because the Saints are built to win first in a climate controlled, roof enclosed environment where the footing is always firm and true.
They mostly are defined by the pass and the pass rush. In the NFL, however, it is defenses and running games that travel well. Passing games, even those orchestrated by the likes of Drew Brees, tend to travel no better than blown glass figurines. It is no coincidence that both of the Saints' losses this year have come on the road, in the homes of the Patriots and Jets.
Sean Payton knows the Saints need to expand their comfort zone. What he wants -- or needs -- is a well-rounded team. And he believes these Saints have the capability to be one. "We've had a chance to slowly improve in our running game," he said. "It's been a point of emphasis. I think we're improving defensively against the run. That's something we've worked on."
In their first five games, the Saints averaged 3.1 yards per carry. In their last six, they have averaged 4.5. The run defense also has improved, allowing 4.4 yards per rush in their last six games after giving up 5.4 yards in their first five.
Really, it's the Saints' defensive improvement under Rob Ryan that has given the Saints a seat at this table. The Saints are ranked fifth in the league in yards allowed after ranking 32nd one year ago, and they rank first in sacks after ranking 30th one year ago.
The greater concern is the adaptability of the offense. What gives the Saints hope is they have shown some chameleon capability on offense this year. On the road against the Bears, they won with ball control and patience. They matched the 49ers' smashmouth style to beat an NFC threat. In their last outing, they played it conservatively and defeated the Falcons with just 17 points.
Payton talks about wanting to be a team that wins by playing "complementary football." That is, having different phases of the team work together to achieve a common goal --even if that goal is a moving target.
"We're becoming a little smarter with regard to how a certain game might be won," Payton said. "I think one of our better games this year on the road was up at Chicago. We did a very good job with ball security. It wasn't necessarily a game played close to the vest. But it was a game that we understood the formula for giving yourselves a chance on the road. We played pretty well defensively. We got the three and outs early in the game. And we were able to get a lead. You have to be smart enough to understand that formula may change depending on your opponent, depending on the conditions, and it may change drastically from what you are used to at home."
The noise level Monday at CenturyLink field will be similar to what the Saints are accustomed to at home -- except it will be loud when their offense is on the field, not when their defense is on the field. Former Seahawks defensive lineman Joe Tafoya is organizing an effort for Seattle fans on Monday to reclaim the record as the loudest open-air stadium in sports. The record was set at CenturyLink on Sept. 15, but fans at Arrowhead broke the record in October.
"When people ask me what's the hard part about playing on the road, the first thing I say is noise," Payton said. "That's certainly the case [in Seattle]. It's a very educated fan base. It's deafening. Now that focus becomes critical. Communication becomes critical. It's a half-second advantage to the pass rush. We see it at home. When that cadence becomes neutralized and it becomes the silent snap count with the center's head, once twice, ball is snapped, compared to when you're at home and you have that slight advantage -- that's a big deal. Then you need to have the poise not to get caught up in momentum swings. It really becomes trying to eliminate the things that can beat you on the road."
The road challenge becomes more daunting for the Saints when the sun is doing business in the southern hemisphere of the globe. The forecast for Seattle on Monday night calls for temperatures in the 30s, with snow flurries possible. As complete as Brees is, his record with the game time temperature less than 40 degrees is 4-8.
When Payton and New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis put together their team, their first priority has to be to try to take advantage of the environment that they will play most frequently in. But they can't put all of their eggs in a domed basket.
"When you are playing in an indoor stadium, there are constants," Payton said. "We also have some constants because of our division. The home field is the Super Dome for eight games... But when you have a team that has an outdoor stadium, you already begin that process of playing in different climates and wind conditions."
The Saints are well aware of where and when their game 19 could be -- Metlife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey, on February 2, also known as Super Sunday.
"Everyone is looking at that final destination," Payton said. "You know you're going to have to play in some tough climates and conditions."
So it's possible that playing in Seattle will just be a warmup for a team whose home field advantage includes a thermostat.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.