I am not sure if there has ever been a very good NFL team with a more striking problem on the road than the New Orleans Saints.
Most good teams don’t care too much where they play and are happy to beat you at home or away. The Saints are different – 7-0 at home, 3-4 on the road – which is why Sunday’s game in Charlotte will spotlight fan involvement as much as any Panthers regular-season game ever has.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott on Monday asked Panthers fans to get particularly loud against the Saints.
“Would I love to see a call to arms?” Rivera said. “Most certainly, because I think it will play to our advantage.”
“That’d be great,” McDermott agreed. “I think our players love it. The last couple of weeks you heard the chants of ‘Defense, Defense,’ and that to me is exciting. You come out of the stadium after the game and the fans are holding the ‘D’ and the fence signs and everything.
“That’s what the players work so hard for during the week, work their tails off, to come into the stadium and get the crowd into it, make big plays early. Yes, absolutely. … I encourage all fan involvement as much as possible.”
The Saints have lost to New England, the New York Jets, Seattle and St. Louis on the road. The loss to St. Louis on Sunday meant that New Orleans and Carolina would enter Sunday’s monstrous game tied at 10-4, with the winner wresting away control of the NFC South.
New Orleans has had one close game after another on the road, with their three victories away from home coming by two, four and eight points. They have played nothing like the juggernaut they are in the Superdome, where their seven consecutive wins in 2013 have come by an average of 17.4 points.
The Panthers are 6-1 at home themselves in 2013, losing 12-7 in the opener to Seattle and then reeling off a half-dozen straight wins in Bank of America Stadium. The home crowd was responsive Sunday during the Panthers’ 30-20 win against the New York Jets, as defensive players repeatedly lifted their arms for more noise and got it, especially on third downs.
“The crowd was very, very loud today,” Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said afterward. “So I can only imagine how loud they are going to be next week.”
With tickets online often going for double or triple face value, interest in the Panthers-Saints game is enormous. The game will undoubtedly have far fewer no-shows than the Jets game did – there were several thousand empty seats for that one.
This game is at 1 p.m. (and again, that time cannot be moved at this point). The early weather forecast is calling for highs in the upper 60s and a 30 percent chance of rain.
The Saints seemed most rattled on the road this year against Seattle, where crowd noise got to the New Orleans offense early. More importantly, though, the Seahawks blanketed all of New Orleans’ receivers.
Here’s the thing: Crowd noise doesn’t go far if receivers are running free all over the place, as frequently happened in the Saints’ 31-13 victory against Carolina when quarterback Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns and 313 yards.
Brees could have played that game in the middle of a Metallica concert and he would still have found Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, because no one on the Panthers could guard either of them.
But while home-field advantage is almost nonexistent at times – and that has been the case for many seasons for the Panthers – there are other cases (like a Duke basketball game) where it is hugely effective. Knowledgeable football crowds do make a difference, because they make offensive communication so difficult for the opponent.
In the early years, the Panthers’ crowds weren’t knowledgeable. There was so much cheering when Carolina’s offense was in the middle of drives in the mid-1990s that offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer took it upon himself to issue some commands for fans, which included being quiet while the offense was at the line.
NFL fans around the Carolinas have since grown more knowledgeable, but they have never had the reputation around the NFL of being particularly loud. Much of that is the team’s fault in my opinion. Carolina has been remarkably unremarkable over franchise history at home – 72-72 overall going into the 2013 season. That’s not the sort of record that engenders amazing loyalty.
Now comes a chance for the team’s players and fans, however. Win this game and one more on the road against Atlanta on Dec. 29, and they get to do it all over again in Charlotte at a playoff game in January. Lose this one, and the Panthers aren’t assured of anything, including a playoff wild-card.
Said Rivera: “Knowing that our fans are out there, it brings an electricity to our players. Our players feed off that energy obviously, and they’ve done a great job responding to our fans. It really has been neat. Our fans have been outstanding this year, and hopefully we can get a real big boost this coming Sunday.”
What Rivera left unsaid there is this: The Panthers will need that boost. Because if they allow the Saints to get comfortable on their road trip, Sunday – and perhaps the season – will not turn out well.