Despite the New Orleans Saints' 10-4 record this season, they have continued to struggle on the road. Their Week 16 matchup against division rival Carolina Panthers (10-4) could determine New Orleans' Super Bowl hopes in 2013.
The Saints travel to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte this week in an attempt to remain atop the NFC South and continue on their path to claiming the NFC's No. 2 seed.
However, a victory here will be easier said than done.
The Saints' four losses this season have all come on the road. Even though the team has been able to win convincingly in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it has been quite the opposite when they have played in hostile environments:
Even when the Saints have been able to produce wins on the road, they have not been very convincing.
New Orleans relies on its high-octane aerial attack led by Drew Brees to get the job done on offense. However, Brees has struggled at times on the road this season. Brees' lowest passer rating at home this season was 87.8 against the San Francisco 49ers.
There is a huge difference on the road, however, as Brees accumulated five ratings lower than that number over the Saints' seven road games. To make matters worse, Brees has also tossed seven of his 10 interceptions on the road in 2013.
Taking all of this into consideration, it begins to become clear why the Saints' Week 16 matchup against the Panthers is so pivotal.
This game could be the difference between New Orleans staying comfortably at home throughout the playoffs or taking on the daunting task of a January road trip.
Brees and Co. will have to find a way to get around the Panthers' second-ranked defense. Currently, Carolina's defense is ranked second in total yards allowed, fifth in passing yards allowed, second in rushing yards allowed and second in points per game.
After Week 15, #Panthers defense will be ranked No. 2 in yds & pts allowed, 2nd vs run & 5th vs pass.— Bill Voth (@billvoth) December 16, 2013
The last time the Saints faced such a stout defense on the road resulted in a 34-7 drubbing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13. New Orleans' Week 15 road showing does not instill any confidence as well, as the Saints were only able to put up 16 points on a 21st-ranked St. Louis Rams defense.
If the Saints are to find their rhythm on the road at some point this season, it is imperative that it begins this week.
After all, if the Saints do fall out of the division lead and enter the playoffs as the No. 5 seed, a rocky road lies ahead. The way the playoff picture looks right now, they must travel to face the Chicago Bears, followed by another trip to either the Seahawks or Panthers should they come away victorious in the Wild Card round.
Dealing with road games against such strong opponents does not bode well for New Orleans' chances of reaching the Super Bowl once again.
For the Saints, the playoffs begin now.