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Playoffs, Popeyes Calling for Saints in Chilly Philly
Carnival doesn't start until Monday, but the New Orleans Saints are already steppin' out with new suits and Popeyes. The Black and Gold are in Philadelphia for Saturday's NFC Wild Card playoff clash with the third-seeded Philadelphia Eagles (7 p.m., NBC). Rather than blocking out the postseason distractions, the Saints are fully embracing the hype -- as long as it means they don't have to talk about how they've played on the road.
As the week started, WR Robert Meachem mentioned a meal of Popeyes chicken the players had before their Super Bowl win in 2010. By Friday morning, the entire locker room was enjoying Al Copeland's recipe.
Sean Payton acknowledged that the Saints' nutritionist wasn't likely to approve, but even the laser-focused head coach was acknowledging the intangibles. Lauded for his attention to detail, Payton started the week by saying numerous elements surrounding the players would be taken into consideration.
"We are going to look at, shoot, everything from what we eat, the Gatorade color we are choosing, the sweats we are wearing, and we will change all of that," Payton said.
The coach was especially comfortable talking about the new sweatsuits when the topic of the team's road play came up. Meanwhile, Brees even said he was willing to change up his famed Beefy Mac recipe.
Asked whether it affects the team when the media keeps bringing up the
“Once they try on the sweatsuits I think they are going to realize, man, the way they fit, you ought to see them, they're pretty special," Payton said.
Ever tenacious, Payton wouldn't relent on the topic of the sweatsuits when away games came up. So, a reporter asked him straight up if he was trying to dodge the question.
"Our road record since 2006 is pretty good. I think our road record since 2009 is pretty good," the Coach said. "But I think it would have been better if we had been wearing these sweatsuits, too."
To keep their season alive, the Black and Gold will also have to change up their attack on the field Saturday night, as RB Pierre Thomas was listed out for the game with a chest injury. Along with his prowess catching the screen pass, Thomas' 549 yards were the most production the Saints got out of a member of their stable of running backs on the ground during the regular season.
Darren Sproles is perhaps even more dangerous on the screen, but neither he nor Mark Ingram have been as consistent as Thomas between the tackles this season. The Eagles rank dead last in the league pass defense, so the Black and Gold will likely be able to do plenty of damage if the offensive line can give Brees enough time to look down field. But the frosty conditions (gametime forecast: 26 degrees) and road environment will likely make the run game important when it comes to ball control and wearing out a tough defensive front that includes Trent Cole -- who registered 8 sacks over the last 8 weeks -- and former SEC terror Fletcher Cox. Tough pass rushes in St. Louis, Seattle and against the New York Jets took the Saints out of their rhythm in prior road losses, so the blockers' ability to protect their QB could become a huge factor.
Along with the pass rush, the Saints have also seen their rushing defense carved up in their road losses. The front seven has risen to the occasion against hard-nosed NFC backs like San Francisco's Frank Gore, but was gashed by the likes of the Jets' Chris Ivory and St. Louis' Zac Stacy. On Saturday night, they'll be tasked with shutting down the NFL's leading rusher in Lesean McCoy. Shady, who racked up a pair of league-best stats with 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 all purpose yards, has thrived under first-year head coach Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense. Never one to line up the tackles and run straight at the defense, the former University of Oregon coach deploys his featured backs in a variety of looks that even the creative Payton isn't used to seeing.
"This is a unique offense though in the type of runs you’re receiving compared to maybe a more conventional run list that you might see on a week-to-week basis," Payton said. "Finding your gaps and being on top of where the runner is, all those things are important.”
The other key to Kelly's transition to the NFL has been QB Nick Foles. The second-year signal caller out of Arizona rose to the starting spot when Michael Vick was plagued by injuries, but has quickly adapted to the up-tempo style that is known for alignments that will look unusual (even to Saints fans) and snapping the ball as quickly as possible after it's placed. In preparation, Rob Ryan's Saints defense has also been in a hurry this week, and it's not just because they had less time than usual between games.
"Nobody is practicing at a faster tempo than us in the history of football so I think we will be ready to go," Ryan said. "I know they will be faster than I have ever seen, but that's fine.”
For all of Foles' hurrying, however, Brees remains ahead. Though it was ten years apart, the two attended the Westlake High School outside Austin, Tex. Often fond of recalling his first taste of glory upon winning the state championship, Brees is very familiar with Westlake's record ever since -- including the year where a Foles-led went to the championship game and lost.
"I know they went to at least three or four state championships after my class left. They haven’t won another one though," Brees said. "We have the only state championship victory."
On Saturday, Brees can ensure that he remains the only of the pair with a Super Bowl victory, as well. The elder Westlake alum can stay a step ahead by keeping the ball out of Foles' hands early in the game. Another characteristic that has remained constant in the Saints' last three road losses is early turnovers that came out of number 9's hands.
With a +12 turnover ratio during the regular season, the Eagles' defense will be licking their chops to pounce on a Breesus transgression.
"I definitely say there is something with momentum on the road especially when you are in a hostile environment," Brees acknowledged. "Don’t give them a reason to get excited. Don’t give their fans a reason to stand up and get crazy."
In the regular season finale against Tampa, the Saints clocked an early touchdown to set the tone. The early TD was also a hallmark of the 2009 season, which laid down a path to glory.
"I think one of our things is we really haven’t started fast on the road and that is something certainly we can improve on,something we are focusing on and that can be a big part of our success too," Brees said.
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