PHILADELPHIA — Sean Payton may not have been in full-on gloating mode late Saturday night, but the Saints coach showed a mischievous glint as he stared into the TV cameras following a 26-24 wild-card road triumph over the Eagles. “The drive out will be nice,” he told a throng of reporters at Lincoln Financial Field.
“Nice,” of course, meant his plan to take victory laps on the team bus. “We’re going to take a couple trips around the stadium,” linebacker Junior Galette explained as he packed up his travel bag in the visitors’ locker room. “When he’s that happy, we do that.”
Payton’s players are well-familiar with the subtle ways he toys with their emotions, and everyone knew a prolonged journey to Philadelphia’s airport wasn’t just about celebrating a heart-pounding victory following Shayne Graham’s 32-yard field goal as time expired. It was also a Yoda-like nudge to look ahead to the Seahawks, who on Dec. 2 dealt the Saints their worst loss of the season. New Orleans managed a season-low 188 yards of offense and surrendered a season-high 429 in a 34-7 drubbing on Monday Night Football.
Even before he made his way to one of five idling charter buses in an otherwise empty South Philadelphia parking lot around 1 a.m., Galette was already thinking about that embarrassing loss without Payton having to drive home the point. “It’s a different feeling than coming back from Seattle, getting on that bus after losing like we did,” the linebacker said.
Despite his artifice, Payton has been unwilling to compare this postseason to last year’s 7-9, playoff-less finish, which he watched from afar after being suspended by the league for the Saints’ bounty program. Even a mild us-versus-the-world mentality could go far as a motivational tool, but Payton simply replied to such an inquiry with, “Next question.” Perhaps he doesn’t want to put himself in the spotlight, but last Saturday’s win over the Eagles was a potent reminder of how badly he was missed in 2012.
Payton plays the matchups as a play-caller, and he dialed back his aerial-circus of an offense to concentrate on the ground game last weekend. Taking advantage of New Orleans’ size advantage up front, and mindful of the below-freezing temperature, he called for 36 runs—second only to the 38 times the Saints ran the ball against the Cowboys in Week 10. The Saints finished with 185 yards, the third highest total allowed by Philly this season.
Gallery: Saints vs. Eagles wild-card game | January 4, 2013
Even more vital is Payton’s ability to pull the right mental strings. Instead of being the team that had a 3-5 road record in 2013—and a winless road playoff record in the franchise’s 47 years of existence (not counting their Super Bowl XLIV victory at a neutral site)—the Saints were a lighthearted squad that answered questions about switching Gatorade flavors from orange to green, their new NBA-style road sweats and quarterback Drew Brees’ beloved beefy mac. The burdens disappeared because Payton tried to control the conversation surrounding the team.
“What Sean has always done so well is—he has a great pulse of where the team is mentally,” veteran tackle Zach Strief says. “How does the locker room see this stuff? How do the players feel about it? Because you hear it; there’s no way not to hear the story lines.”
Payton also resurrected a refrain that he’d used in the past: Do something you have never done before. He even seized on his personal connection to the Philadelphia area, where he spent a large portion of his childhood and got his first job as an NFL assistant, adding another layer of meaning to the game during his Friday night speech to the team.
How might Payton spin this week’s divisional round matchup with the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field? It’s less about motivation than it is cultivating a mindset: That New Orleans’ Week 13 loss was a fluke; that the Saints can beat any team in this postseason. So there Payton was in the visitors’ locker room in Philly, rattling off statistics to his players that made the Saints’ two-point win feel like a blowout. Among the ones at his disposal: their 434 total yards to the Eagles’ 256; their 185 rushing yards to the Eagles’ 80; their 54% third-down efficiency to the Eagles’ 25%.
If there’s an overwhelming theme to this week’s preparation, it doesn’t need much repeating. The Saints have a chance to redeem themselves this Saturday in Seattle. Strief, who joined the Saints in 2006 along with Payton, sees his coach “as focused in as I’ve ever seen him,” even if Payton had “some rust” early on as he got back into the groove of coaching. That’s not to say Payton’s comeback hasn’t had its share of bumps from start to finish.
The Saints were in line to win the NFC South and host playoff games in the comfort of their dome, but they lost three of their last five and now have to follow the tough road of a sixth seed. But Payton has always had an answer, asserting after regular-season defeats that the Saints would soon be playing in bigger games than the one they just lost.
“When coach is more up,” Strief says, “all of a sudden you’re more up.”
The Saints are no doubt up this week. And if this No. 6 seed one day soon drenches its head coach in green Gatorade, instead of orange, Payton’s mind games will have been the reason why.