Darren Sproles has no time to waste. It is two days before New Orleans's playoff opener against the Lions in the Superdome, and the Saints' dynamic all-purpose back walks quickly through an emptying locker room and begins toweling off at his dressing stall. His family will arrive shortly from San Diego, and he still has a TV interview to take care of.
As he changes into a T-shirt and shorts, Sproles is slowed for just a moment by a question about the atmosphere that will await the Saints on game night. His eyes widen, and a smile creeps across his face. "That dome is going to be rocking," he says. "These fans down here, they're lovely. That's what keeps us going. As soon as you walk in that dome, you get goose bumps."
Touchdowns too. The Saints scored a league-record 329 points at home during the regular season, and their +23.3 scoring differential was the best in the league and third highest all time. Their explosiveness was never more apparent than last Saturday night, when they spotted the Lions a 14--10 halftime lead, then scored on five straight possessions on the way to a 45--28 wild-card victory that left 73,038 spectators delirious and the rest of NFL Nation wondering if any defense can slow them.
Drew Brees was 33 of 43 for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and a powerful ground game added 167 yards on 36 carries. Against production like that, opponents need to be near perfect, and the Lions were far from it: They dropped three potential interceptions and allowed the Saints to convert three times on fourth down. "When you face a team like that," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, "you have to take advantage of those opportunities."
If there is an Achilles' heel, it's that the Saints, who have never won a playoff game outside the Superdome, won't play indoors again this season if the seedings hold up. "We're going to worry about things that we can control," says left tackle Jermon Bushrod. "Playing on grass, playing in the snow, playing in the elements—we've got to deal with it. We won outside this year when it was cold in Tennessee [41° at kickoff]. We won outside last year when it was cold in Cincinnati [32°, windchill of 23°]. Whatever the circumstances, we've just got to fight to get it done."
The perception that the Saints aren't built for the elements is based equally on style and statistics. The offense revolves around Brees's passing, and the team was 8--0 in the Superdome versus 5--3 on the road, where it scored 111 fewer points. Still, the elements have not been that hard on the Saints. Over the last three seasons New Orleans is 12--4 outdoors, and one of those defeats was in the 2009 season finale, when key starters were being rested for the playoffs. The Saints' last three outdoor losses were by six, eight and six points, respectively, at Baltimore in December '10 and at Green Bay and Tampa Bay this season. Since Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in '06, the Saints are 22--13 in the elements; their 62.3 winning percentage is just 3.3 points lower than their overall mark in domed stadiums. They've scored at least 30 points 19 times in 35 outdoor games (54.3%) since '06, compared with 26 times in 61 games indoors (42.6%). "People figure we're a finesse team that can't play outside," says cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. "It doesn't bother us one bit. We know what we have."
Indeed, the Saints are far from one-dimensional. They ranked sixth in rushing, at 132.9 yards a game, and one reason they were able to stretch the field against the Lions in the second half was that Detroit had to respect the run. Pierre Thomas finished with 66 yards (many of them after contact) and a touchdown on eight carries. Chris Ivory added 47 yards on 13 rushes, and Sproles, the 5'6", 190-pound newcomer, had 85 yards (51 rushing) from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
Arguably no 2011 free agent had a greater impact on his team than Sproles, who spent five seasons in San Diego. A threat as a runner, receiver and returner, he set a league record with 2,696 all-purpose yards, led the Saints in rushing with 603 yards (and an astounding 6.9 per carry) and was second on the team with 86 receptions, for 710 yards and seven scores. "He can do everything you ask him to, and he's such a matchup nightmare," says Brees, who set NFL records for passing yards (5,476), completions (468) and accuracy (71.2%). "We go into a game, and you see where a guy almost has to get himself hyped up to want to cover him. 'Man, I can do it! I can do it! Let's go!' Then [Sproles] gives him one of these [wiggle moves], and it's over."
Brees breaks out laughing. The thought that Sproles can be stopped one-on-one is as comical to him as the argument that the Saints cannot win in the elements.
"We like to be outside," Sproles says. "We like to be on grass too." His eyes widen again, and another smile creeps over his face. He has on long sleeves, but you can almost see the goose bumps on his forearms.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
RISING LATE Against Detroit in the wild-card game, Brees took off in the second half, with 292 passing yards and all three of his touchdown throws.
AL TIELEMANS (SPROLES)
LITTLE EASY The 5'6" Sproles, who set a record for all-purpose yards in 2011, accounted for 139 and two TDs against the Lions.