The New Orleans Saints are good, but they're not that good. Their superiority in the NFC is buttressed by dominance within the walls of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And though Drew Brees and Co. are 7-1 on the road this season, they are far more vulnerable away from home.
The Saints escaped Charlotte with a 12-9 victory Monday over a skidding Carolina Panthers squad at Bank of America Stadium. New Orleans finished its recent three-game road swing with a 2-1 record and emerged on the other side as the NFL's only 12-win team.
Yet, the Saints' performance the last three weeks shouldn't sit well if the team is incapable of securing home-field advantage. If the Saints lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Panthers (in their second meeting), the Los Angeles Rams would leapfrog them as the NFC's top team, assuming the Rams win out against the Arizona Cardinals (3-11) and San Francisco 49ers (4-10).
An old football cliche states, "A run game and good defense travel."
The Saints are solid in both areas with the eighth-ranked rushing offense and 11th-ranked defense, including the league's best run defense. However, three straight road opponents—the quality of which are suspect—held fourth-quarter leads.
Only the Dallas Cowboys emerged victorious, but beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Panthers at this point in the season is nothing of note. The Bucs are the NFC South's bottom-dweller, while the Panthers have lost six straight contests.
The Saints' recent offensive performance is a cause for concern, and that's why their grasp on the "NFL's best" title is tenuous.
First, the Saints marched into Dallas with a 10-game winning streak on the line. The Cowboys knew what it took to beat New Orleans and perfectly executed their game plan.
"They're going to have to match our intensity," Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence said prior to the Week 13 meeting, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett. "S--t, for 60 minutes straight. If you hit a motherf--ker in the mouth and then they ain't doing what they're regularly doing, putting up 50 points, they start to get a little distressed. Now you got them where you want them at, and then you f--king choke their ass out."
Dallas provided a template to follow for teams with comparable talent. The Cowboys defensive front lived up to Lawrence's proclamation. Dallas didn't need to utilize many pressure packages because its line consistently disrupted the Saints' approach.
"As an offense, we think complementary football,” Brees said after the 13-10 loss, per the Associated Press' Schuyler Dixon. "Let's put together a drive. Let's keep our defense off the field. Let's control the game, control the clock, control the ball. Just never felt like we really did that as an offense like we've done this year."
But it's far more than an opponent just having its best performance of the year. Trends have begun to develop. Brees, in particular, hasn't been his normal stellar self.
The MVP candidate has completed 69.1 percent of his passes for an average of 177.0 yards and 5.6 yards per attempt over the last three games. For the season, his numbers on the road drop off considerably when compared to his home totals.
|Drew Brees' 2018 Performance: Home vs. Away|
Brees has only seven touchdowns in six outdoor contests, and three of those came against the Bengals' 32nd-ranked defense.
It's not just about the quarterback, though.
The offense as a whole is scoring 9.1 fewer points per game when playing on the road.
The offensive line has allowed far too much pressure in recent weeks. The Saints have allowed only five sacks during the recent road stretch, but that's mostly because Brees has a quick trigger and great pocket movement. New Orleans had the game's best offensive line through 11 weeks of play. It's quickly falling apart.
The Saints medical staff evaluated center Max Unger, who has started 33 straight games, for a concussion during Monday's contest, according to Triplett. He didn't return. Left tackle Terron Armstead hasn't played since Nov. 11 as he deals with a pectoral injury. A mix-and-match front is trying to protect Brees and open up running lanes, and the offense has failed to establish a rhythm as a result.
"A lot of people expect us to come out and be perfect, but that's just not reality," Saints running back Alvin Kamara said after the Buccaneers contest, per Triplett. "You know, people make mistakes. We may start slow sometimes. But it's not when adversity hits, it's how you respond to it. And I think this team responds well to adversity."
Kamara's running and ability to make defenders miss helped the Saints secure their 12th victory, as he accumulated 36 rushing yards and the game-winning touchdown during New Orleans' final two drives (excluding the game-ending quarterback kneel) against Carolina.
The Saints' solid defense did the rest.
The Panthers only managed 247 yards of total offense. One has to wonder if the outcome would have been different had Cam Newton been healthy. The quarterback is dealing with a bum shoulder and couldn't drive the ball with any consistency. The Saints took advantage. But they'll face healthier quarterbacks in the postseason.
"I've always said this: We [the defense] don't want to be a sideshow," defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins told reporters after Monday's contest. "We don't want to be the part of the team that gets carried on the way to the championship. We want to be the reason we're able to hoist that Lombardi Trophy in February."
Defense supposedly travels, which could make Rankins' wish come true in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.
All of these road struggles will be moot in the NFC playoffs if the Saints earn the No. 1 seed.
So, securing the conference's top seed with one victory among the two remaining regular-season games isn't just a priority for the Saints; it's a necessity.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.