Patriots need loud statement
They’ll be put to test in noisy Superdome
FOXBOROUGH - The anticipation this week on the streets of New Orleans already had moved beyond a buzz and into something close to a celebration, “like Mardi Gras in November,’’ Saints safety Darren Sharper said.
By Monday night, after a holiday weekend and a start time that will give fans nothing better to do than tailgate outside the Louisiana Superdome and sip their drink of choice from a jelly jar, the stadium will transform into perhaps the NFL’s most ear-splittingly difficult building to visit.
“I can be touching facemasks with you and you’re yelling. I still can’t hear you,’’ Sharper said. “It gets pretty loud, and that’s one of the things that’s a home-field advantage for us. We definitely have to use that.’’
The Patriots understand the challenge of playing on the road, and they also know they must overcome it to pronounce themselves a championship-caliber team. The Patriots this season are undefeated at Gillette Stadium but winless in their three road games, against the Jets, Broncos, and Colts. While they were officially the road team in their victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they were playing in London, a neutral site that was hardly an adverse setting.
On Monday night, the Patriots will face not only the undefeated Saints, but also the deafening Superdome. Toppling the Saints would validate the Patriots as a team capable of handling games away from Gillette.
“You want to be able to play on the road,’’ center Dan Koppen said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t had as good a record as we’d like around here. We’re going to go down there and it’s going to be a hostile crowd. The fans are going to be into it. So that’s another thing that we’re going to have to deal with.’’
Defeating an elite team on the road could help the Patriots in the postseason. With the Colts running away with the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC, a trip to the Super Bowl, it seems, will mean a trip through Indianapolis.
“Say you do make it to the playoffs and you don’t get home-field advantage,’’ cornerback Leigh Bodden said. “Then that’s one thing you’re going to have to do, is win on the road. So it’s definitely important to win on the road and get that under your belt and try to play good away.
“Sometimes it’s hard because your fans aren’t behind you. At times you have an edge when your fans are not behind you. It’s hard to start off fast when you’re away because of the crowd. That’s one thing we need to do is start fast and finish fast.’’
With the emphasis on finish. The Patriots have led at halftime in every road game this season - 9-3 against the Jets in Week 2, 17-7 against the Broncos in Week 5, 24-14 against the Colts in Week 10.
In the games they let slip away, the Patriots’ offense stalled. They scored zero points in the second half against the Jets and Broncos, and just 10 against the Colts. They didn’t score in the third quarter in any of their losses.
“I think we’ve just got to play for 60 minutes,’’ Koppen said. “It’s just not a 30-minute game. It’s 60 minutes. We’ve got to understand that. It’s a very good team that we’re facing. It’s going to take all 60 against the Saints.’’
The scoring disparity is most stark in the Patriots’ road games, but the first half/second half difference has rung true all season. They have scored 196 points in first halves compared with 94 in second halves, and they have not scored in the third quarter five times - half of their games.
“I think after you play as many games as we have that there’s some merit to the numbers that are up there,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t think that tells the whole story and I don’t think that tells a weekly story. But from a standpoint of production, what you produce, that’s what you’ve produced.’’
Two weeks ago, the Patriots could have scored their most impressive victory of the season against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. They had the Colts crushed and the crowd quieted. But two turnovers in the Colts’ end zone allowed Indianapolis into the game and reinvigorated its crowd. Once the 17-point comeback began, it snowballed.
“You’ve got a lead, you’ve got to be able to finish,’’ cornerback Terrence Wheatley said. “If you don’t finish, then them being at home, they’ve got the crowd, they’ve got the momentum. This game is a game of swings and emotion. Once you’re up, you’ve got to stay up and finish the game.’’
If not, the Superdome will present a second opponent. Sharper is in his first season after years of playing in Green Bay and Minnesota. Lambeau Field, for its passion, and the Metrodome, for its echoing noise, are unique venues. Neither of them, Sharper said, forces a visitor to focus quite like the Superdome.
“We’ve just got to be able to execute more,’’ Wheatley said. “The games that we’ve lost on the road, we’ve kind of made little mistakes here and there, haven’t capitalized on the opportunities that we had. You can’t do that against good teams on the road. This is definitely one game you can’t do any of that.’’