If the New Orleans Saints are to clinch a playoff berth this weekend on their own, they must improve their recent play on the road.
The Saints hope to accomplish both Sunday while trying to send the St. Louis Rams to a seventh consecutive losing season with a third straight defeat.
Various scenarios that would involve help from other teams can put New Orleans (10-3) in the playoffs with a loss, but it can simply secure a berth with a victory Sunday.
The Saints have some renewed confidence after they rebounded from a 34-7 loss at Seattle on Dec. 2 with a 31-13 victory last Sunday over Carolina. With the win, New Orleans improved to 7-0 at home and took a one-game lead over the Panthers in the NFC South.
While the Saints have the inside track on the division title and a first-round bye, they play the next two on the road - including a rematch with Carolina - before concluding the regular season by hosting Tampa Bay.
"We'd like to be able to take the show on the road, but definitely playing in the dome is an advantage," center Brian de la Puente said. "We know that. Teams know that coming (to New Orleans is) a difficult place to play. There's unique things that present themselves when you're on the road and that's part of it."
The Saints average 32.9 points and allow 15.4 per game at home but are scoring 18.8 and giving up 22.5 per contest while going 3-3 on the road.
Drew Brees, who became the fifth quarterback to eclipse 50,000 career passing yards last Sunday, has thrown 23 of his 33 touchdowns while posting a 122.5 passer rating at home. On the road, he's thrown five of his eight interceptions and has an 87.7 rating.
Though Rob Ryan's defense ranks sixth overall at 313.6 yards per game, its three worst yardage and point totals have come away from home. New Orleans has dropped three of the last four on the road while allowing its opponent to score first in each contest.
"It's not so much about being on the road that really causes problems," safety Roman Harper said. "It's the fact that when we don't have success early, how guys respond and things like that.
"When we come out and we play fast, we get off to good starts offensively, defensively, that's when we're at our best. We've got try to find a way, no matter where we're at location-wise, to come out of the locker room and start fast."
Though the Saints' most recent road victory came at another indoor venue, 17-13 at Atlanta on Nov. 21, St. Louis was responsible for one of their three losses in 2011 with a 31-21 victory at the Edward Jones Dome when the teams last met.
Brees threw for 269 yards with a TD and two INTs in that contest. He's been picked off twice in each of his five career games against the Rams.
Tight end Jimmy Graham recorded five of his league-leading 14 TDs in the last three contests but was held to four receptions for 39 yards and no scores versus St. Louis in 2011.
The Rams (5-8) improved to 3-3 at home after they ran for a season-high 258 yards during a 42-21 victory over Chicago on Nov. 24. Since, they've been outscored 53-23 in road losses to San Francisco and Arizona that eliminated them from playoff contention and secured a 10th straight season without a winning record.
"We are going to get better," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Our focus is going (to be) on the Saints. That is what we are going to do."
With two first-round draft picks next year - including a Redskins pick that is currently second overall - the Rams have reason to be excited about next season but will focus on the present.
"We have to finish strong," said defensive end Robert Quinn, who has recorded eight of his NFC-leading 13.0 sacks at home. "You don't want to look at the next season, you want to finish strong and take it one game at a time."
Kellen Clemens, who has thrown one TD and three INTs in the last two games, was sacked a season-high four times in last Sunday's 30-10 loss to the Cardinals. He's been sacked 18 times since replacing the injured Sam Bradford and now faces a New Orleans defense that leads the NFC with 43 sacks.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette combined for all five sacks of Cam Newton last week.
St. Louis rookie Zac Stacy averaged 86.5 rushing yards in his previous eight games before he was held to 25 on 14 carries against the Cardinals.
It's uncertain if fellow rookie Tavon Austin will play after he injured his ankle on a 56-yard run versus Arizona.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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