Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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ST. LOUIS Midway through the third quarter Sunday and with the Saints backed up at their own 3-yard line, the musical director at the Edward Jones Dome queued up AC/DC's 'Thunderstruck.'

If he could have found a song called dumbstruck, that would have been more apropos for New Orleans.

Because Sunday, in a game the Saints had to have, they lost 27-16 and it was as dumbfounding and shocking and whatever other ing word you can think of.

'Here is the thing, let's be honest you need to have the energy in a game like this,' Saints Coach Sean Payton said. 'Week (15)? With what is at stake? And if we don't, then maybe that is a sign as to where we are at.'

Where the Saints (10-4) are at is a good question.

Payton thought he knew before Sunday but now, after that debacle, he's not sure.

New Orleans spent the week discussing and acknowledging the letdown in 2011 in which it lost to St. Louis in much the same manner and now that comes off as nothing more than lip service.

Sunday doesn't happen to teams on the rise, teams legitimately vying for a title of any kind.

What Sunday does do is call into question just how strong the core leadership is with the team and whether the youngsters in the locker room have tuned them out.

'We have some veterans on this team but we are still trying to find out a little about our leadership,' Payton fired off in his post-game news gathering.

One of the leaders let on that they at least acknowledge there's something going on even if they don't always publicly admit it.

'When you get interviewed in this league, you don't send out panic,' New Orleans tackle Zach Strief said. 'That doesn't mean that when we're together and our doors are closed that we're not looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, 'What's going on?' Look, we have to be honest with ourselves right now and we have to be realistic and say, 'What is the problem and how do we fix it?''

The problems manifest themselves the most on the road, when focus is of the utmost importance and respect of the opponent is paramount. There's a disconnect there when the Saints leave the confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The record, indeed, does not lie. New Orleans is 3-4 on the road this season and has lost four of its past five contests away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The wins include a last-minute come-from-behind win over a Tampa Bay team that is now 4-10 and a skin-of-their-teeth four-point win over an Atlanta group that also is 4-10.

While the Saints have outscored opponents at home by 122 points, they've been outscored by 33 on the road. And while the offense has flourished at home this season, never scoring fewer than 23 points, they've scored more than 17 only three times on th road.

As much as the statistics point to travesty on the road versus triumph at home, the confidence of the players doesn't seem to waver.

And, because of Sunday's result, they have to be. New Orleans heads to Carolina in the season's most crucial game. Win and the Saints secure not just a bye in the playoffs, but a coveted home game in the divisional round. Lose and look at what likely would be a road playoff opener, if they even make the playoffs (there's a possibility of that, yes).

'If we want to do anything in the playoffs we're going to have win a road game,' Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. 'We're up to the challenge. We're going to take it square on and look at it in the eyes. We can keep answering all the questions. It's not going to bother us at all. It's not going to take away our confidence.

'We know what team we have. We know what we can do and we're going to put it on tape.'

Fact is few outside of the players at this point are sure just what the Saints can do and have confidence that they'll be able to do anything next Sunday in Charlotte.

Once again, in other words, the Saints will play in their biggest game of the season.

We'll see this time whether they can rise to the occasion.

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