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John DeShazier: Saints ready to 'close out' games on the road

Team has suffered three close road losses this season

Even with a 3-4 record, sole possession of first place in the NFC South Division will await the New Orleans Saints on the other side of Thursday night if New Orleans can scale one wall at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

And that barrier is this: Dating to last season, the Saints have lost their last seven regular-season road games.

"We're on our way to getting that first win on the road in a while," quarterback Drew Brees said Tuesday. "And we all believe it's going to be this week. We're not making it any more difficult or any bigger deal than it already is. We're just going to go play our game."

Playing their game almost has been good enough. And, actually, the streak is a regular-season mark. The Saints proved capable of winning away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in their 26-24, wild-card game victory in Philadelphia last season, which was the first road playoff victory in franchise history.

But regular-season success has been more difficult to grasp. The Saints' road record the last two seasons stands at 3-9 entering Thursday's game against Carolina (3-4-1).

Still, it's not as if New Orleans hasn't been within reach. The Saints, in fact, have been tantalizingly close to having success on the road during their regular-season streak.

Last season, Carolina produced a five-play, 65-yard drive in 32 seconds to score the winning touchdown with 23 seconds left in a 17-13 win.

This year, Atlanta kicked field goals as time expired in the first half and regulation to force overtime, then another field goal after recovering a Saints fumble on the first possession of overtime to post a 37-34 victory at the Georgia Dome.

A week later, Cleveland managed to cobble together a 14-play, 85-yard drive that led a game-winning 29-yard field goal with three seconds left in a 26-24 decision at FirstEnergy Stadium. Most recently, Detroit scored two touchdowns in the final 5:24 to erase a 23-10 Saints lead en route to a 24-23 triumph at Ford Field.

"It's important to look at everything," right tackle Zach Strief said. "We've lost games on the road this year that we just didn't finish. Obviously, there was the game in Dallas (at 38-17 loss) where we didn't play real well.

"But the other losses have been games that you say, 'Man, you should've gotten out of there with a win.' And the fact of the matter was, the things that were getting us beat were the little things that we've talked about and we've tried to improve."

Those "little things," Strief said, weren't only reserved for the road. He said the Saints had seen some of them occur in their first two home victories, 20-9 over Minnesota and 37-31 over Tampa Bay in overtime, before New Orleans played its most complete game of the season Sunday night, and routed Green Bay 44-23.

"Even the games at home, up until (Sunday) I would say, we weren't finishing the way that we needed to, we weren't doing the things that we needed to at the end of games to win," Strief said. "And there was certainly more of a concerted effort at the end of this game of making sure everyone was on the same page and understood the situation and made sure we were playing smart football. That's going to go as far as anything, in terms of gaining success on the road.

"All road games are tougher. That's league-wide. And you look at how we've lost three of those four road games and you say, we made some critical errors at the end of the Falcons game that gave them an opportunity to get back in.

"The Cleveland game, the offense couldn't get points and put them in a situation where they've got to score a touchdown or even close the game out (on offense), we don't either of them and we give them the ball back, and then the breakdowns in Detroit.

"It's not that we were getting dominated on the road, but we weren't finishing games. And we really weren't finishing games real well at home, either. So I think we just have to keep growing, keep kind of educating guys and get guys on the same page so at the end of these games, people understand the sense of urgency and what it takes to close games out in this league."

That will be a necessity Thursday if the Saints are to beat the defending division champions, who are 1-4-1 in their last six games, including 1-2 at home.

"We need them all," Brees said. "No more important game than this quick turnaround, Thursday night game at Carolina. We had two really good games against these guys last year. We are going to need our best performance to beat them. We have to go on the road and get the job done."

To do that, Strief said, the Saints have to ignore the previous seasons successes and failures, a mantra the Saints adopted last season entering the playoffs.

"We don't gain any of the successes of those years in the past, we're not going to carry the demons of the last year's performance," Strief said. "We are carrying the demons of this season, but I think this team is growing up.

"I think we're growing up quickly. I think it's important that guys see the results of a game like this past week, and what really focusing on the end of the game and the situations can do for us."

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