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Saints will march to San Francisco

Payton looking forward to a challenge on road

Associated Press / January 9, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS - The 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 yesterday. “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 Saturday. And of New Orleans’s 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, 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 the 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 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.’’

Drew Brees led an unstoppable offense by throwing for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and New Orleans dominated the second half against the Lions.

New Orleans broke the postseason mark for total yards with 626, beating the record set 49 years ago.

“We were pulling out all the stops,’’ Brees said after the victory. “We play aggressive. We’re not going to apologize for that. That gives guys in the huddle a lot of confidence. We’re not going to pull the reins back. It’s pedal to the metal.’’

Brees hit on 33 of 43 passes while throwing for the most yards in a regulation playoff game. He highlighted his night with three completions of at least 40 yards.

As usual, the quarterback had plenty of help from an offense that set an NFL record for yards from scrimmage this season (7,474), outgaining Detroit on the ground 167 yards to 32.

Matthew Stafford threw for 380 yards and three TDs for the Lions (10-7), who simply could not keep pace in their first playoff appearance since the 1999 season. They have lost seven straight postseason games.

“It’s a learning experience for the whole team. We’ll get better. We’ll be back,’’ Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “Obviously it hurts right now.’’

All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson had 12 receptions for 211 yards and two touchdowns in his playoff debut for Detroit, but that was not nearly enough as the Saints’ defense responded in the fourth quarter with two interceptions by Jabari Greer.

“We did make the playoffs this year and that’s a great accomplishment,’’ Johnson said. “We have some things to work on and we will. We know what we have to do to make the next step.’’

The teams combined for 1,038 yards, tying an NFL playoff record set by Buffalo and Miami Dec. 30, 1995.

Pierre Thomas finished with 66 yards and one touchdown rushing, while Darren Sproles added 51 yards, two scores, and several other clutch plays.

Marques Colston overcame an early fumble with seven catches for 120 yards, including a 40-yarder to set up Jimmy Graham’s short TD grab.

Meachem had four catches for 111 yards, including a 56-yard score. Devery Henderson added a 41-yard touchdown reception.

New Orleans showed guts and got a little good fortune on a decisive 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter. The Saints ran Sproles around the left end on fourth-and-2 at the Lions 40 and gained 3 yards. Soon after, Brees’ pass as he was clobbered by Nick Fairley went right through the hands of defensive back Aaron Berry.

Berry would regret that drop two plays later as Sproles bolted 17 yards to make it 31-21.

Stafford tried to get some of that back quickly, throwing deep for Titus Young, but Greer ran under it and picked it off. Four plays later, Brees spotted Meachem behind blown coverage for his long score to make it 38-21.

The Lions became only the second visiting team all year to lead at halftime in the Superdome, where the Saints were unbeaten during the regular season.

“So going into halftime at a deficit, we just realized, ‘Listen, just bear down, one play at a time, one drive at a time,’ ’’ Brees said, “and I think we scored on every drive in the second half. I guess that’s what you hope for.’’

New Orleans has won nine in a row overall.

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