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Barry Hirstius

ADVANTAGE NOLA? Saints Fans Can Have a Hand (and a Voice) in NFC Playoff Race

It might be the world's worst kept secret of the past 34 years (at least since 1983), but the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans (and home of the NFL New Orleans Saints franchise) can be a pretty intimidating place to play for visiting NFL teams.

Unfortunately, for the last few years (2014, 2015, and 2016), the Saints haven't given their passionate fan-base a whole lot of reasons to make a lot of noise inside the building that has served as their home stadium since it first opened back during the 1975 season.

But this year thanks to an infusion of phenomenal young talent via one of the best Draft classes in franchise history along with some of the more successful couple of Free Agent signings in recent memory, New Orleans fans have a reason to be excited again.

The Saints have turned around their fortunes in 2017, thanks mostly in part to an 8-game winning streak (which finally was snapped in their loss last Sunday at Los Angeles to the Rams) that has vaulted them into the very heart of the NFC Playoff race with 5 regular season games remaining.

And as a direct result: beginning this Sunday with the critical rematch at the Superdome against NFC South Division rival the Carolina Panthers, the Saints fan-base (a.k.a., the "Who Dat Nation") now has a (black and) golden opportunity to have a hand as well as a voice (LITERALLY) in the current NFC Playoff race. 

Photo courtesy of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome

Saints fans have provided the New Orleans Saints franchise with a notable reputation League-wide as one of the most deafening and difficult home environments for visiting teams to have to try to overcome.

The Superdome, when it's at a 'fever-pitch', is ear-splittingly loud — so loud that one can barely even think without being mentally distracted by the overwhelming sound of it.

However, it wasn't always that way.

Back in 1975 when the Superdome first opened, the building was more of a physical marvel for Saints fans; who had been used to the old, open-air Tulane Stadium in uptown New Orleans where their home games were played from their inaugural 1967 season through 1974.

Photo courtesy of The State Library of Louisiana

It wasn't intended to be used as a 'home-field advantage' in the same sense that it's used today, but rather a place where fans could enjoy the game without the threat of inclement weather (specifically rain) or especially in the case of New Orleans being in southeastern Louisiana, the at-times overbearing heat and humidity.

Photo courtesy of The State Library of Louisiana

New Orleans at times can be one of the few places in the entire nation where you can still "break out in a sweat" from near 90° temperatures filled with heat and humidity, while the rest of the country is preparing for the bitter cold arctic air that ushers in Winter from Autumn.

When the Superdome first opened in that 1975 season, it was essentially nothing but a big 'echo chamber' and almost eerily quiet by today's standards, for two main reasons.

Reason #1 was because Saints fans in those days didn't have much to cheer about, because the team was horrible. 

The Saints were the laughingstock of the NFL at that time, and viewed as one of — if not THE WORST — franchise in the entire League.

In that first year in the Superdome during the 1975 season, the Saints were a walking disaster.

Despite the new stadium, they finished the year with a (2-12) record, which was 3 wins less than they had won the previous season (5-9) in 1974. They tied the San Diego Chargers that season for the league’s worst record.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Then-Saints head coach John North, who suddenly had been put in charge of the team when they were already 4 games into the 1973 Pre-Season (after then-owner John Mecom had fired the previous head coach — J.D. Roberts — immediately on the spot in the locker room following an embarrassing loss 31-6 loss to the Patriots, in what was a meaningless exhibition game); was also fired himself following a 38-14 road loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the 6th game of the 1975 season.

Director of Player Personnel Ernie Hefferle took over for the franchise's final 8 games. His only win that year in his short time as interim head coach that season was his first game in the Superdome: a 23-7 victory at home over the hated Atlanta Falcons.

Long story short: the Saints were a "comedy of errors" at that time, and Saints fans didn't have a whole hell of a lot to cheer for.

And Reason #2?

Simply because Saints fans at that time didn't realize the "power" that they could have over a game, by helping to dictate its outcome by using the reverberation of sound and loud noise, to their (and the Saints team's) advantage.

It wasn't until the 1983 season under then-head coach Bum Phillips, that the Saints and their fans realized that the Superdome offered a distinctive home-field advantage — when they threatened to make the NFL Playoffs for the first time in their history and sold out the Superdome in a handful of games that year.

Those sold-out games were the first indication to the team and its fans as well as the outside world, that the Superdome could be used as a weapon of sorts, by making it a place that no opponent wanted to find themselves at with a game on the line.

Photo courtesy of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome

The Saints fell short of the Playoffs in that 1983 season (8-8), but the knowledge of how sound could be used as an advantage and not a disadvantage; was something later capitalized on by the team's next head coach, Jim Mora, during "The Dome Patrol Era" of 1986 to 1992.

Now some 30 plus years later, this current version of the New Orleans Saints franchise still wields that same power.

Unfortunately, they just haven't been able to use it in their own favor in recent seasons.

But that can all change this Sunday, as the team will play its long-anticipated "rematch" with NFC South Division rival Carolina in what will be as big and monumentally important of a game as they come, in today's NFL.

Some are even referring to this as the "Game of the Year" for both teams.

Though the teams currently have identical (8-3) records, the Saints technically are still in 1st Place; by virtue of their dominant 34-13 win over the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium at Charlotte, North Carolina back in Week #3.

A win for New Orleans this Sunday would essentially give them a 2-game lead over the Panthers, since they would have a "season sweep" over Carolina for the first time since the 2011 season — the last year that the Saints won the division title.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

So there isn't any doubt that Saints fans attending this Sunday's game should have plenty to get excited about (and hopefully as loud as they can be to give the team an "extra" advantage) as the 3;25 p.m. Central standard time kickoff finally arrives.

WWL 870 AM/FM New Orleans Radio host and analyst Kristian Garic earlier this week on both his radio show and on Social Media via Twitter, issued a personal challenge to all Saints fans attending this Sunday's contest to break the decibel record for the NFL's loudest stadium ever recorded; and encouraged them to be as loud (or louder) than the fan-bases of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks — the two teams generally regarded as having THE LOUDEST home-field advantage regarding crowd noise, in the entire NFL.

It's a challenge that Saints fans are certainly quite capable of meeting, if they show up ready to scream their lungs out and with a great reason and motivation to do so, on top of it.

Let's face it:

The Saints before this season, hadn't given their fans a reason to be as passionate as they have been in the past.

If you count their 6-2 home record during the 2009 Super Bowl season, the Saints were 26-6 at home from 2009 thru 2013, a winning percentage of a whopping 81.25 % success rate.

But then the Saints lost 13 of their next 24 home games over the past three years worth of back-to-back-to-back 7-9 finishes; falling far short of the previous standard of excellence that they established in 2 of the 3 seasons just prior (2011 and 2013) to that, when they went undefeated (8-0) twice in those years excluding the throwaway "Bountygate" season of 2012.

However, this season thanks to the influx of young talent that has allowed the franchise to quickly "rebuild" the team ahead of schedule and a lot sooner than most of the experts anticipated, the team has won 4 out of the 5 games at home inside the Superdome; with this Sunday's game and the two more after that — back-to-back weekends against the Jets (December 17th) and the hated arch-rival Atlanta Falcons (Christmas Eve, December 24th) — still remaining on the home schedule.

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Saints fans can give their beloved team a distinct advantage in all 3 of these remaining home games, as long as the team can continue to give them a reason to be vocal and make their voices heard loud and clear; and enough to make it difficult for the opposing offenses of the Panthers. Jets, Falcons, and hopefully any potential Playoff opponent, to be successful inside of the Superdome.

That reason of course, would be winning games — something that 8 out of 11 times this season, they've been able to do.

Saints head coach Sean Payton told ESPN Saints beat writer / reporter Mike Triplett last year prior to the start of the season in his usual blunt but pull-no-punches (and refreshingly honest) manner, that the "formula" for making the Superdome a difficult place to play is actually a pretty simple one:

Which is for the team to WIN the games that are played inside there, more often than not.

“Look, it’s a pretty easy science: Play well.

So did we spend time in the off-season working to win more games (at home)? Yes,” 

“But for us,” Payton said, “it’s playing well.”

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Hopefully this Sunday beginning at 3:25 p.m. Central time, the Saints will do exactly that.

And if they do?

Then chances are, that the Saints fans can give them a welcome advantage — and in the process, give themselves an opportunity to have a hand (and a voice) in the NFC Playoff race for the last 5 weeks of the 2017 NFL season......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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