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Saints Need To Focus On Home Field For Playoffs

Courtesy—Jeff Duncan/Times-Picayune

If you’ve been watching National Geographic’s spectacular series “Great Migrations, ” then you know the great lengths animals will travel to reach their preferred climate.

Their roads, as NatGeo photographers chronicle in high-def detail, are often arduous and perilous.

NFC teams could learn a thing or two from their fine-feathered and furred friends as they prepare for the stretch drive to the playoffs.

The road can be hazardous to your health.

The home team has won five of the past six and eight of the past 11 NFC championship games.

And often the key statistic isn’t turnover ratio or third-down conversion rate. It’s wind-chill temperature.

Like perhaps no other sport, climate plays a key role in deciding football champions.

This year once again, the NFC playoff race likely will boil down to which team can earn home-field advantage.

The leading contenders — Atlanta, Green Bay, New Orleans, the New York Giants and Philadelphia — play in vastly different conditions, especially in late January when weather becomes a factor.

The difference between playing at Lambeau Field and the Superdome in late January is roughly equivalent to the difference between ice fishing for walleye on Lake Superior and fly fishing for redfish in Barataria Bay.

The sport is the same. But the games are entirely different.

The median temperature in Green Bay, Wis., in late January is 16 degrees.

In Philadelphia, it’s 30 degrees. In East Rutherford, N.J., it’s 31.

The Superdome, meanwhile, was a comfortable room temperature for the NFC championship game last season.

The New Orleans Saints’ chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions could well rest on the singular goal of earning home-field advantage.

It might sound simplistic, but consider their two previous title-game appearances.

The Saints were completely out of their element in a 39-14 loss to the Bears on the wintry shores of Lake Michigan in 2007. They dropped balls, committed uncharacteristic mental mistakes and basically muddled around for four frustrating quarters.

Last season, though, was a different story. The Saints were outplayed by the Vikings but seemingly willed their way to victory on the emotion of the sellout crowd. Does anyone believe the Dome-field advantage wasn’t worth at least three points in that 31-28 overtime win?

Don’t expect anything different this season.

I know the Saints have not played as well at home as they have on the road of late. Two of their three losses and four of six during the past two seasons have come in the Superdome. Their average margin of victory this season is 0.5 points at home and 12.2 on the road.

But, as the Pittsburgh Steelers can attest, the Superdome is a different beast for a big game.

Several Steelers said the Superdome was the loudest stadium they had ever played in during their careers. They said the noise as much as the Saints defense was responsible for the momentum-swinging goal-line stand in the second quarter.

The Saints need to keep this thought in mind when they return from the bye week.

Forget the mouse traps and baseball bats. Saints coach Sean Payton should order the equipment managers to tune the flat-screen TVs in the locker room to the Weather Channel each practice day. No motivational tactic will work better than seeing the plummeting temperatures and snow warnings in upstate Wisconsin as the holidays approach.

The Saints could use the extra incentive. Unlike last season, this year’s race looks as if it will be closer than Blame-Zenyatta at the Breeders’ Cup.

Of the leading contenders — I purposefully excluded upstarts Chicago and Tampa Bay because I don’t think they have staying power — the Packers face the toughest road the rest of the way. Their remaining opponents own a combined record of 30-26.

The remaining foes of the Saints and Falcons have combined .500 marks, although the Falcons play one more home game than the Saints, starting with tonight’s battle against Baltimore.

The Eagles (30-34) and Giants (32-33) have easier paths but also still must face each other a couple of times.

With only two games separating the top 10 teams, the jockeying for the No. 1 seed should be compelling. Each victory will be critical.

And as the contenders drive to the finish, they should keep one thing in mind: Home is where the Halas (Trophy) is.

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