Saints' road woes hit home in a big way

ST. LOUIS -- Of course the New Orleans Saints were aware that they had been struggling on the road this season. But up until Sunday, it was something they were adamant they could overcome.

Then the St. Louis Rams slapped them in the face, slammed them to the turf a few times and proved that the problem was even bigger than the Saints realized. New Orleans lost 27-16 in a sloppy game that wasn't as close as the score indicated.

Now the Saints (10-4) have to dust themselves off and figure out how they can go and win on the road next Sunday at Carolina (10-4) -- or else they'll almost certainly wind up hitting the road as a wild-card team in the playoffs.

"That was pretty ugly," Saints coach Sean Payton said in his opening statement after the game. "Obviously we didn't get them ready to play, we looked flat coming out, and I take responsibility for that. Much has been written about how we play on the road and how we play at home. And you know what? That is where it is right now, with this season.

"We come out here with a lot at stake ... and we can't line up and kick a field goal, we can't get the run stopped, we turned the ball over. We did everything we talked about that you can't do to get a road win.

"How we played today is unacceptable, and that is on me."

If Payton was ever more frustrated by a loss, I don't remember it.

And it wasn't just his postgame comments that revealed how he felt. He yanked left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup during the third quarter after Brown was repeatedly burned by Rams pass-rusher Robert Quinn. And Payton could be seen a few times on the sideline giving some animated rallying speeches to his players.

"Yeah, it's been a while," Payton said when asked if the performance was as frustrating as any he can remember. "This one was hard. I think, honestly, because of where we're at. I mean, how much time and energy goes into your preparation, and you put yourself in a position that we have, as well as we played a week ago."

Payton didn't complete the thought. But his point was well made. He thought this team was better prepared for a playoff run at this stage of the season. Even after their blowout loss at Seattle two weeks ago, the Saints responded with an emphatic 31-13 victory over the Panthers last week in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But now they're still scratching their heads -- still wondering exactly what they're made of.

When asked if he was surprised to see that performance from a "veteran team," Payton's response was telling.

"I don't necessarily agree that this is a veteran team," Payton said. "We have some veterans on this team, but we are still trying to find out a little about our leadership.

"We will challenge these guys and challenge our coaching staff. We are going to have to improve in a lot of areas in order to play better than that, obviously, or else we will get the same result. Or it will be a mixed bag. One week we will play well, and the next week we won't. I am sure the tape won't be very exciting. But it will be revealing."

I also don't think I've ever quoted Payton so extensively in a postgame column. But that was another telling sign of the imprint he left with his raw, honest statements.

Payton wasn't the only one in that mode Sunday. Team leaders such as quarterback Drew Brees, offensive tackle Zach Strief and safety Malcolm Jenkins shared many of the same thoughts.

"I think it's more in the style that we lost the game that was probably the most disappointing," Jenkins said. "If you watch football, you know what loses. If you can't stop the ball and turn the ball over, you're going to lose the game. Those are things we've done poorly on the road, and that's why we've lost games.

"It's not some voodoo magic or some bad luck we have where we can't play well on the road. We just make mistakes, and those are things we have to get cleaned up."

It started almost right away. After forcing a Rams punt, Brees threw an interception on the Saints' first offensive play -- while being hit by Quinn as he threw.

Then one play later, Rams tight end Cory Harkey broke three tackles on his way into the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown.

Then on the Saints' next drive, they marched to St. Louis' 10-yard line before Brees threw another interception while trying to force the ball to tight end Jimmy Graham in triple coverage.

Later in the first half came a successful surprise onside kick by the Rams, a 40-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown run by Rams running back Zac Stacy, a penalty that nullified a Saints touchdown and a blocked 36-yard field goal attempt -- Garrett Hartley's first of two misses.

St. Louis led 27-3 through three quarters before the Saints started to rally on both offense and defense. Brees finished with 393 passing yards, a touchdown pass and a touchdown run. But he also threw the two picks and was sacked four times, including a sack-fumble by Quinn.

"Well, it didn't help that we had the turnover on the first play. And you want to talk about just kind of waking the whole place up. That did it," said Brees, who also reluctantly admitted that the Saints' road struggles are a real trend. "We're kind of proving you guys right, which is unfortunate, because we certainly don't feel that way about ourselves. But the record doesn't lie. We have to play better on the road."

Brees said the Saints knew all of the dangers they faced in St. Louis, having lost a game in almost the exact same fashion here in 2011 when the Rams were 0-6 at the time. Yet they did everything they had warned against anyway.

And he said the process for improving this week will have to be "methodical." But the message will be simple.

"If we play well, we can win," Brees said. "If we make some of the same mistakes that we've made these last two road trips, then we'll get beat."