Saints could face tough road to repeat

Drew Brees and the Saints will likely have chilly road stadiums in their postseason future next month. AP Photo/Rob Carr

BALTIMORE -- In a postgame locker room where there easily could have been talk of frustration, doom or even meetings to plan the return of the Lombardi Trophy, there simply wasn’t.

“If we are a wild-card, then obviously our trip to the Super Bowl is on the road,’’ New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after a 30-24 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. “If that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’ll have to do.’’

Nobody summed up the situation the Saints (10-4) face any better than Brees. Nobody even took a different tack than Brees. From head coach Sean Payton on down, the Saints were taking the loss for precisely what it was.

“It’s a disappointing loss, a tough loss,’’ Payton said. “You credit Baltimore. It was a hard-fought game. I thought both teams played hard and, in the end, they made more plays than we did.’’

Ordinarily, the above quote would not have been transcribed off my tape recorder and it certainly wouldn't have been used. It’s the kind of meaningless stuff coaches spew every week. But, in this case, it is entirely accurate.

On a chilly day at M&T Stadium, two good teams played a good game and the Ravens (10-4) came out with a narrow win. There’s no real shame in any of that, but let’s keep the part about chilly days in distant stadiums and playing against very good teams in mind.

Last season’s dream of playoff games in the comfy Superdome are fading fast.

“I think we’re a very good road team,’’ Brees said. “We just ran into a very good opponent.’’

Well, if the Saints really are going to repeat as champions, losing close games on the road isn’t going to be good enough. There is the Dec. 27 road game at Atlanta, the team that has the lead in the NFC South. After that, there’s a regular-season-ending home game with Tampa Bay, but that might be the last time the Saints see the Superdome until next season.

Heck, unless they’re lucky enough to draw the NFC West champion in a playoff game, they probably have faced their last easy opponent until next season. Sunday’s temperature at kickoff was 34 degrees. There was no snow and the sun even came out a few times, but the Saints potentially could face road trips in the playoffs where the setting could be far worse than Baltimore.

They could end up in places like Philadelphia, New York or Chicago in January.

“The fact is, we still had a chance to win at the end,’’ Brees said. “That’s all you can ask for.’’

That’s all true. The Saints were in it all the way until Brees had a pass intercepted with one minute, 47 seconds left.

If nothing else, though, Sunday showed that things aren’t going to get any easier for the Saints. In fact, in a lot of ways, it showed some pretty major flaws that can be exploited.

Let’s start with the run defense, because the Ravens started and finished with their run offense. Baltimore’s Ray Rice carried 31 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. Factor in a few carries by Willis McGahee, highlighted by a 28-yard run, and quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens gained 208 yards on the ground.

“Our game plan was to stop [Rice],’’ New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

Chalk up that game plan -- or at least the execution of that game plan -- as pretty much a total failure.

“We didn’t stop the run at all,’’ veteran safety Darren Sharper said. “It just comes down to tackling the guy with the football. We know we can play with this team or any team. It was just more about the fundamentals, more about not tackling.’’

Well, guess what? The Saints probably are going to face a few more good running backs before all is said and done. There’s Atlanta’s Michael Turner next week (and maybe later in the playoffs) and Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount in two weeks. And if you look at the other running backs the Saints potentially could face in the playoffs, you’ll see some pretty good ones. If the Saints keep going the way they are, you could even end up seeing some running backs play a lot better than they really are.

“Our defense is about creating turnovers,’’ Jenkins said. “When they put the ball on the ground for 150 yards, that makes it tough to get turnovers.’’

If you really want to knock this point home, you might want to factor in what Rice did as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown on a day when Flacco was completing only 10 of his 20 passes for 172 yards.

Were the Saints too focused on stripping the ball from Rice and forgot about tackling him?

“We were doing the same thing we’ve been doing,’’ Payton said. “Obviously, they rushed the ball pretty well, so we’ll look to clean some of that up.’’

It might be a good idea to clean up all of that. It clearly isn’t panic time for the defending champions. But it’s approaching. The Saints must figure out how to stop the run and win games played in distant, cold-weather stadiums.

“Everything is ahead of us,’’ Sharper said. “If we win our next two games, we are in a good position. We need to come back from today. This was a tough loss to a tough team.’’

Maybe that’s all this was -- or maybe it was a sign of what’s starting to look like a tough road for the Saints.