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Saints look to capitalize on Dome-field advantage vs. Panthers

After getting throttled 34-7 by the Seahawks on Monday night, the New Orleans Saints couldn’t get out of Seattle fast enough.

Except they couldn’t.

A cracked windshield on the Saints’ charter plane left the team stuck in Seattle overnight, forcing them to wait until Tuesday to return to New Orleans, according to reports.

Seldom has the Saints’ home, sweet dome looked as good to them as it will this week.

Saints coach Sean Payton bristled at questions last week about the Saints being a good dome team that struggles away from home, particularly in cold weather.

And while the Saints have the league’s second-best road record since Payton took over in 2006, they remain a much more dangerous team in the Superdome, where the decibel levels and fast, artificial playing surface combine to give New Orleans a decided Dome-field advantage.

With the Panthers (9-3) headed to New Orleans on Sunday night for the first of two games in a 15-day span that will decide the division, the Saints (9-3) will try to remain unbeaten at home this season.

Cris Collinsworth, the color analyst on the NBC “Sunday Night Football” crew broadcasting the game, said he’s called his share of blowouts in the Superdome.

“When New Orleans plays at home it’s like they turn the lights out on the other team or something, and they can’t do anything,” Collinsworth said. “I’ve just seen some really big numbers put up by that Saints team down there.”

The Saints are averaging 33.2 points at home this season, compared with 18.8 points on the road – a figure that was not helped by their dismal showing in Seattle.

But in eight seasons under Payton, the Saints’ offensive numbers don’t differ that much home versus road. That might be the reason Payton told reporters anyone asking “dumb questions” about the Saints’ road record before the Seattle game “needs to do a little research on it.”

New Orleans is averaging 404.9 total yards and 298.3 passing yards in 62 regular-season home games since the start of the 2006 season, slightly better than the 398.9 total yards and 291.5 passing yards on the road over that span.

But the perception throughout the league is that the Saints are a better, faster offensive team in the Superdome, much like St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offenses during the 1999, 2000 and 2001 seasons.

“First of all, you don’t have to worry about the elements,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the Saints. “I think on the turf it helps in terms of their timing because they have an indoor facility as well. They practice on turf. And turf does make a difference because of the timing.

“It’s a little faster paced as far as running routes and stuff like that. There is a little bit of a home-field advantage as well because their fans can control the atmosphere.”

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said the Saints’ offense seems to click better at home.

“With the turf, they’re probably a little bit faster with the timing routes and what not,” McDermott said this week. “I don’t know the stats to support that, but they seem like they’re a pretty well-oiled machine down there.”

According to a recent report citing the Elias Sports Bureau, Saints quarterback Drew Brees had passed for at least two touchdowns in 21 home consecutive games. It was an NFL-record streak that was snapped on Nov. 17 when Brees tossed one touchdown in a 23-20 win against San Francisco.

Brees has thrown 19 touchdowns passes, with three interceptions, in the Saints’ six home games this season – compared with 10 touchdown passes and five interceptions in six road games. He leads the NFL with a 122.2 home passer rating (minimum 150 attempts).

Brees’ streak of 43 consecutive games with at least 200 passing yards came to an end in the rain and din of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, where Brees was held to 147 yards by the Seahawks’ so-called “Legion of Boom” secondary.

It was the Saints’ worst defeat since a 41-10 loss to Indianapolis in 2007, and the seven points were their fewest since a 30-7 loss to the Panthers in 2008.

Regardless of what happened in Seattle, the Panthers know the Superdome will be rocking on Sunday night, which figures to present more problems for Carolina’s offense.

“You can’t use the snap count to your advantage, so you have to find different ways to offset those guys coming off the ball,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “It’s going to be loud. It’s something you have to prepare for.”

Shula said the Panthers will practice with crowd noise blaring during practices this week. During the game, Shula said he plans to get the play call to quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey as quickly as he can, so Dorsey can relay it to quarterback Cam Newton.

But it’s the Panthers’ top-ranked defense that has Collinsworth eager to call the NFC South showdown Sunday in New Orleans.

“You’re always looking for matchups. And this matchup with this defense is going to be a great one I think,” Collinsworth said. “I’ll be honest with you, if I had my choice, I’d rather see this played in Carolina because I’ve seen some great defenses really struggle down here. That’s what makes it exciting for me.

“If they can go in there and compete with this offense in that building, to me that takes the Carolina Panthers to a whole new level. I know they’ve won eight in a row now and they’ve done great things. But you go compete with the Saints in that building, you could go win the Super Bowl.”

Staff writer Jonathan Jones contributed.

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