Road gets tougher for Saints at Chicago

METAIRIE, La. – Scrap that conventional wisdom that a “dome team” like the New Orleans Saints can’t win on the road. The Saints actually have the best regular-season road record in the NFL since 2009 (22-11) and the second-best road record since 2006 (34-23).

But the Saints haven’t had much success in Chicago, where they lost three straight winter games in the 2006 postseason and the 2007 and 2008 regular seasons.

Quarterback Drew Brees is 0-4 at Chicago in his career, including a game when he was with the San Diego Chargers. The only place that’s stymied him more is Denver, where he’s 0-5.

Those previous losses at Soldier Field were long ago, and the Saints (4-0) won’t be facing the same weather conditions when they return Sunday to play the Chicago Bears (3-1). But players and coach Sean Payton haven’t shied away from that history this week, stressing that it’s an environment – and a good opponent – that they’d like to finally overcome.

“We talked about it [Wednesday] morning. That’s a place that we’ve struggled. And we’re well aware of that. And we’ve talked a lot in other seasons, if you want to do things you’ve never done before, you have to do things you’ve never done before,” Saints tackle Zach Strief said. “That’s a point of emphasis this week. It’s a good crowd, it’s a team that plays well at home, and it’s a big challenge.

“I think this is a game that we can prove something to ourselves. We still don’t really know what we have here, and this is a good football team [we’re playing against].”

The weather conditions shouldn’t be too nasty in Chicago, though there is a chance of rain on Sunday.

Over the years, the Saints have had some sub-par performances in adverse weather conditions (those Bears losses and a 2007 loss at Tampa Bay come to mind). But they’ve also handled some cold and rainy days just fine. And sometimes they’ve simply been able to survive – like they did in a rainy 16-14 victory at Tampa Bay in Week 2 this year.

“I can’t think of many games that we’ve gone into, despite whatever weather conditions – rain, snow, wind – that we haven’t just executed our offense,” Brees said when asked if the game plan has to be altered sometimes because of weather or the field surface.

“[You] just have to make sure you have the right cleats and know the conditions, be able to prepare for them. And then potentially the game plan is altered or just modified slightly due to some of those things,” Brees said. “It looks like it’s going to rain there all week, so it’s probably going to be a muddy, kind of nasty surface. You just have to be prepared for all of those things. Just as far as in and out of your cuts, maybe things are a little slower. As long as you know what to expect and you can prepare for it, I think that you’ve put your mind in the right place.”

Payton also said the most important issues with outdoor road games come down to preparation – preparing for the crowd noise and the need for silent snap counts, preparing for the travel routine, preparing for the surface and footing.

The Saints moved part of their practice outdoors Thursday – the pre-practice walk-through, so they could practice wearing the cleats they’ll use on Sunday. But then they finished indoors since the steamy Metairie weather conditions weren’t replicating what they’ll face on a cooler day by Lake Michigan.

The Saints’ defense will lose that edge that they get inside of a fired-up Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But linebacker Curtis Lofton said it’s actually easier for the defense to play on the road because they get to play in silence.

“Don’t get me wrong. On third down, being in a dome does give us an edge,” Lofton said. “But at the same time, it’s difficult to communicate. And it also helps to hear the quarterback’s audibles or checks.”

Still, the Saints would ultimately prefer to play at home whenever possible – especially come playoff time. As successful as they’ve been on the road in the regular season, they’re 0-3 on the road in the playoffs during the Payton-Brees era, 4-0 at home and 1-0 in the neutral-site Super Bowl.

Of course it’s way too early to start talking about home-field advantage in the playoffs. But it is hard to ignore the fact that the two teams leading the NFC standings right now – the Saints and Seattle Seahawks – boast two of the most dominant home-field edges in the NFL.

If the Saints want to be the ones playing at home in January, they’re going to have to win some tough road games this season, including back-to-back dates against the Bears and the New England Patriots (4-0) over the next two weeks.

And stay tuned for this topic to become even more prominent later this season, when the Saints hit the road for a Monday night date at Seattle in Week 13.