NEW ORLEANS -- If the message wasn't already clear to the rest of the NFL before Sunday night, it should be painfully evident by now: Don't let the New Orleans Saints play at home in the playoffs.
The Saints' 49-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night was so lopsided it was borderline ridiculous. And yet, it was just the latest in a string of 12 consecutive night-game wins inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- many of them just as dominant.
The Saints (7-2) set a league record with 40 first downs against the Cowboys. And their 625 yards was the second highest total in regulation by any NFL team since 1982. The only team that topped them? The 2011 Saints, who gained 626 yards in a prime-time playoff victory over the Detroit Lions in this same building.
But nobody was gloating in the aftermath. As quarterback Drew Brees said after throwing for 392 yards and four touchdowns, “You know, [the 40 first downs] is just a single-game record. I think it says a lot about just today.”
Because here's the catch: For the Saints to wind up playing here in January, they've still got a lot of work to do.
New Orleans still has to survive a grueling group of games over the next six weeks -- including next week's home date with the nemesis San Francisco 49ers (6-3) and a Monday night game at the Seattle Seahawks (9-1) on Dec. 2 that could determine the NFC pecking order.
And just in case you missed the memo, Seattle is also a place that nobody wants to visit in the postseason or on a regular-season Monday night in December.
“I don't know who we play next, but I know there's a lot of good teams on our schedule,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “In this league that's generally the case, but I think exceptionally so this year. We've got a lot of good teams, a lot of physical teams left to play. And we've got a lot of work to do.”
After San Francisco, the Saints play at Atlanta on a Thursday night, at Seattle on a Monday night, home against Carolina on a short week, then at St. Louis and at Carolina.
The 49ers are licking their wounds a bit after a 10-9 loss to the Panthers on Sunday. But the Saints aren't about to take them lightly. Not after the way they got roughed up by the 49ers in a 31-21 regular-season loss in New Orleans last year and in a 36-32 playoff loss at San Francisco two years ago.
“We certainly need that challenge,” Brees said of the 49ers game. “They're a very good football team. I know they had a tough loss today, but they're a team that's very much in the mix.
“We know the type of team they are. We know the talent they have, what they're capable of, what a physical team they are. They pride themselves on that on both sides of the ball. So we're gonna need our best game to beat those guys. And we know that.”
Well, maybe not their “best game.”
As the Saints proved again on Sunday night, when they play at their best on both sides of the ball, few teams can hang with them.
The offense was incredibly efficient, whether they passed the ball or ran the ball. Believe it or not, the Saints actually began Sunday's game with a patient, balanced attack that included a heavy dose of runs by Pierre Thomas.
In the second half, they kept piling on with a heavy dose of runs by Mark Ingram, who shattered his career-high with 145 rushing yards on 14 carries -- the first 100-yard game of his three-year NFL career. The Saints finished with 242 rushing yards on 38 carries.
Receiver Marques Colston led the team with 107 yards and a touchdown. Thomas gained a combined 111 yards rushing and receiving, with two touchdowns. Darren Sproles had a combined 88 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Kenny Stills joined the fun with a 52-yard touchdown catch.
And afterward, everyone -- especially Ingram and Brees -- was deservedly praising the offensive line. The entire line was awarded with a game ball in the postgame locker room.
“Maybe the quarterback's supposed to mention the offensive line in every press conference,” Brees said. “But for real, these guys were phenomenal today. Phenomenal.”
The defense was just as huge. Although the Saints gave up too many yards in the run game early, they silenced Dallas' dangerous passing attack. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was outstanding against dynamic receiver Dez Bryant through the night -- though the Saints also used frequent double teams.
Quarterback Tony Romo completed just 10 of 24 passes for 128 yards. Bryant caught just one pass for 44 yards.
But enough reveling in the win. Like most teams, the Saints have a “24-hour rule” in effect after games -- and it's even shortened this week since they played a night game Sunday.
One of coach Sean Payton's favorite messages to his team is that outsiders will react to every win and loss like it's either a “crisis or a carnival.” And players clearly got that message.
Ingram said it was important for the Saints to come out Sunday night and “show the world” that they could play some smash-mouth football and be equally explosive running the ball as passing the ball.
When asked if they sent that message, Ingram laughed and said, “Yeah, I think people got that point.”
Then he quickly stopped smiling.
“But, you know, there's still so much more that we can improve on. It's good to come out and play successful like this on a Sunday night and on this stage, but it's just one more game,” Ingram said. “We plan on playing a lot bigger games than this one.”