Saints seek top NFC seed, while Steelers eye division title
By Brett Martel
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — While Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan stressed that New Orleans doesn’t fear going on the road in the playoffs, he readily acknowledged the advantages of staying in the Superdome.
New Orleans (12-2) can lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs with a victory over visiting Pittsburgh (8-5-1) on Sunday.
“That would be huge,” said Jordan, referencing what he calls “dome-field advantage.”
The Saints did fine on the road this season, going 7-1. They won’t finish any better in the Superdome, where they are 5-1 with two regular-season home games left. But New Orleans’ offense generally has been better at home, where Drew Brees’ pre-snap instructions — and center Max Unger’s line calls — are easier for teammates to hear. The Saints have averaged about 38 points at home, but their road scoring average dipped about nine points below that after three straight road games in which they were held to 28 or less in each game and to 12 or fewer points twice.
“It’s been almost a month since we’ve been at the dome, so it’ll be nice to be back in there,” Brees said. “Obviously we’ve got a lot going for us right now — a lot at stake.”
In reality, the Saints don’t have that much riding on Sunday’s game — certainly not as much as the Steelers, who could still win the AFC North but haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet. New Orleans already has won a second straight NFC South crown and will finish as a top seed even if it splits its next two games. But from the standpoint of offensive production, playoff history and promoting optimal health, the Saints know they’d be best served by beating Pittsburgh.
In franchise history, the Saints are 1-7 in playoff games away from the Superdome. Since coach Sean Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints have not lost any of their five home playoff games. The one season they won the Super Bowl, they were the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
In fact, no Super Bowl participant has won a single road playoff game since the 2012 Baltimore Ravens won at Denver and New England en route to their title-winning tilt with San Francisco in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, key Saints players could get as much as two weeks rest — the regular-season finale and the playoff bye — if New Orleans wins this week.
“Rest is much needed to get our bodies right,” Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore said. “Take a week, or two (off) if we clinch it this week. Hopefully rest the starters for the last game.”
The Steelers can’t worry about rest — not even after improving their postseason outlook with a victory over New England last week.
“We just want to get into the playoffs,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It doesn’t matter how you get in, we just want to get in. Obviously, the first and second seed you would like, but I don’t think we can get that now. So, let’s just find a way to get in.”
Some other prominent story lines surround the Steelers’ visit to the Superdome:
Despite a significant slowdown offensively during their past three games, the Saints went 2-1 during that stretch because of strong defensive play.
New Orleans, which struggled defensively early this season, has not allowed any of its past six opponents to score more than 17 points and has held two teams to less than 10.
“The offense was really getting us through the games at the beginning of the season and the roles flipped,” Lattimore said. “Nobody pointed fingers. We just got the job done. That’s the biggest thing, just playing as a team.”
Steelers rookie running back Jaylen Samuels will start his third straight game in place of injured Pro Bowler James Conner, who is hobbled by a sprained left ankle.
Samuels, a fifth-round pick, lit up New England for 172 total yards. Not bad for a player who was asked to work out as a tight end at the NFL combine. The going could get considerably tougher against New Orleans, which leads the league in rush defense (79.1 yards per game).
Brees is the third high-profile quarterback the Steelers have faced in four weeks, joining New England’s Tom Brady and Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers. Roethlisberger, who only knows Brees casually from run-ins at the Pro Bowl, isn’t sure Brees has gotten enough credit for his record-setting career.
“He’s incredibly athletic … and a tireless worker,” Roethlisberger said. “Not really known for a huge arm, but can pretty much make any throw. I have a lot of respect for that guy.”
Jordan, the Saints’ sacks leader, sounded incredulous when a media member referred to Roethlisberger as a “future Hall-of-Fame quarterback” during an interview in New Orleans’ locker room.
Grimacing and turning his head sharply, Jordan said: “It that true? Really? In this era? You’d put him at like a top three of this era? Top five of this era?”
Jordan listed Brees, New England’s Tom Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers, the retired Peyton Manning and the Giants’ Eli Manning as QB’s he’d place above Roethlisberger.
This season, Roethlisberger’s 4,462 yards rank second behind only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in the NFL.
Jordan, a first-time All Pro last season, has 12 sacks to go with 17 tackles for losses, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
NFL SUSPENDS PATRIOTS’ GORDON FOR SUBSTANCE ABUSE VIOLATION
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Patriots receiver Josh Gordon was suspended indefinitely Thursday by the NFL for violating an agreement that allowed him to play after multiple drug suspensions, casting doubt on whether the talented but troubled playmaker would ever play in the league again.
League officials said Thursday that Gordon was returned to the reserve/commissioner suspended list indefinitely for breaking the terms of his reinstatement under the NFL substance abuse policy.
The news came several hours after Gordon said he was stepping away from football to focus on his mental health.
Gordon said on Twitter his decision was spurred by his own feelings that he could have a better grasp on things mentally. He thanked the Patriots for their support and vowed to work his way back.
“We support Josh Gordon in his continued efforts to focus on his health. His attempt to do so is a private and personal matter, which we intend to respect,” Patriots team officials said.
Gordon has been suspended several times by the NFL for violations of its drug policies since being drafted by the Browns in 2012, and missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons.
After being reinstated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, Gordon revealed in an interview with GQ magazine that he drank or used marijuana before games. “Probably every game of my career,” he said.
Gordon also said in a 2017 mini-documentary on Uninterreupted.com that he took Xanax, cocaine, marijuana and other narcotics.
Gordon’s outlook had improved with New England, where he landed in September in a trade after the Browns felt it was time to cut ties. He had 40 receptions for 720 yards and three touchdowns with the Patriots, five years removed from an All-Pro season in 2013 with 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns.
Special teams captain and receiver Matt Slater said despite his suspension, Gordon still has support inside the Patriots locker room.
“My No. 1 concern is with him as a man,” Slater said. “I’m thankful for the approach he took here, how he was as a teammate. I enjoyed getting to know him in that process and I’ll continue to support him in any way I can.”
Safety Devin McCourty said the 27-year-old’s well-being is his biggest concern, not football.
“Life comes before all of that,” McCourty said. “I think we wish him the best and care about that more than wins or losses.”
New England officials had insulated Gordon and focused him on getting acclimated to the team’s highly-disciplined culture, while also limiting his time with reporters.
Coach Bill Belichick said last week that Gordon was thriving on the field, developing chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady and learning the offensive system.
“He’s a smart kid, so he learns well,” Belichick said. “For better or worse, he’s been in a lot of different systems. I know it was only one team, but it was a lot of different systems up there. Most everything we’ve asked him to do he’s done somewhere along the line for somebody.
“As we go through each week, I would say we’ve gained a little more ground on the overall knowledge of the system,” he said.
Gordon said earlier this month he thought he was settling in well with New England.
“It felt like home a long time ago,” Gordon said. “The atmosphere is very welcoming. It took me a little bit to get acclimated to the area. Other than that, it’s been pretty smooth so far, and that’s due in part to the facility, the organization, just everybody helping me along the way.”
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