NEW ORLEANS -- It's probably fitting that the New Orleans Saints 2014 journey began in St. Louis, the city known as the Gateway to the West. For it's the West the Saints must conquer, and out west in Glendale, Ariz., site of Super Bowl XLIX, where they hope their season-long march concludes 22 Sundays from now.
The Saints won their first and only Super Bowl in 2009, yet ever since the NFC West has been a thorn in the side of the team who's home lies on the East Bank of the Mississippi River.
Sure, the Saints have since made the playoffs in three of the four seasons, with their only absence coming in 2012, when head coach Sean Payton served his yearlong Bountygate suspension. In all three appearances, though, they've been unceremoniously booted by NFC West teams playing at home. San Francisco did it once (2011), Seattle, twice (2010, 2013).
Out West, Seattle is the defending Super Bowl champion and looks to be every bit as dangerous as a season ago. The 49ers are no slouches, either. Over the last three years, they've been defeated in the Super Bowl once -- in 2012 by the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans, no less and twice in the NFC Championship. Both teams are vaunted opponents at any venue. Their home stadiums, however, present even greater challenges.
Surely the Saints don't want to again travel to the Pacific Northwest, where they could be forced to operate in cold and rainy conditions while Seattle's 12th Man takes another shot at a noise record. Moreover, it's probably safe to assume San Francisco's new $1.2 billion stadium won't be any more inviting.
Consequently, it's imperative for the Saints earn home-field advantage for this year's postseason. They had it in 2009. Then need it in 2014.
The Saints' woeful 3-5 road record from a year ago just won't cut it. I'm no math expert, but by my calculations that record doesn't jive with the number of wins the Saints will likely need to secure home field throughout the playoffs. It would at best give New Orleans 11 wins. And if history teaches us anything, that's insufficient.
Over the last decade, nine of the 12 teams that posted 13-3 records have claimed that coveted No. 1 seed. The 2011 Saints, however, are one of those teams that fell short despite winning 13 games. The other two the 49ers in 2011 and the Packers in 2007 -- both of whom the Saints face this season.
Excluding the 2012 season, the Saints have lost just two regular season home games Atlanta and Tampa Bay in 2010 in the three other seasons since winning the Super Bowl. The Saints have enjoyed the ride in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, going 22-2 at home during those years.
A first-round bye, home for the playoffs, sounds good if I'm the Saints. But 13 may not be enough this year. Seattle, Green Bay and San Francisco are capable of winning as many or more. Plus, there's always a team or two that can sneak up on the league and surprise even the best prognosticators.
On paper, the Saints certainly have the roster to ensure the NFC's road to Glendale goes through New Orleans.But as their new defensive captain Junior Galette said last week, 'Now we've got to go out there and show it on the field.'
Part 2: Key players
Part 3: Weekly predictions