In the most general sense, coaches in the NFL have three goals, two of which go hand in hand: win the division, make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.
When I was coaching, I tried to simplify the regular season with the first two goals in mind. To do so, I broke the year into two categories: home games and road games. Obviously, we wanted to win every game, but if we could hold serve at home and then split on the road, we'd have a 12-4 record, which would easily take us into the playoffs and most likely earn us a division title. Win at home, split on the road.
Through Sunday, four teams had logged road wins in Week 9 -- and two really stood out to me. Not to take anything away from the Rams' divisional win in San Francisco or the Eagles' escape in Houston, but I'd like to dive deeper on hostile-territory triumphs by the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals.
The Saints have already figured out the win at home part of the equation: They're 3-0 this season at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they were undefeated last season. But they're lagging when it comes to the win on the road part. In fact, they aren't even close to splitting their away games; Thursday's road win was their first in five tries this year, and it was their first regular-season road win since Week 12 of last season (although it is worth noting they did win a wild-card playoff game last season in Philadelphia).
Not only did the Saints break a seven-game regular-season road losing skid, they snapped a streak of ineptitude that was simply becoming hard to explain. During that stretch of road futility, the Saints averaged just 19.1 points per game while giving up 29; they also recorded a turnover differential of minus-11. On Thursday, however, New Orleans scored 28 and held the Panthers to 10 while breaking even in turnover differential.
Additionally, the team showed a commitment to the rushing game that will pay dividends later in the season. Mark Ingram's 30 carries were the most in a game for a Saints running back since 2004; he also became the first Saints player to carry the ball 20-plus times in back-to-back games since 2007. Ingram's 100-yard total and 3.3 yards-per-carry mark are, by themselves, nothing to be excited about, but he scored two touchdowns and helped New Orleans own the time-of-possession battle (35:18 to 24:42). Ingram now has six rushing touchdowns on the season -- just one less than league leaders DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster. That type of physical running will help the Saints maintain control on the road, particularly when the weather begins to change late in the year.
Finally, the timing of the win was critical for a Saints squad embarking on a stretch of games against the 49ers, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers -- none of whom has a losing record -- before once again squaring off with the Panthers in Week 14. The good news? Four of their next five will be played at home, where New Orleans has won 11 in a row.
» Arizona wins at Dallas, 28-17. Like the Saints, the Cardinals have the first part of the equation solved, compiling a 4-0 home record thus far. And while they were 2-1 on the road heading into Week 9, they had yet to earn a signature victory as the visiting team (neither their Week 2 win over the Giants in New Jersey nor their Week 7 win over the Raiders in Oakland is worth hanging one's hat on). In Jerry World on Sunday, they had a chance to do just that.
While Cowboys apologists will certainly bring up the fact that Brandon Weeden was filling in for an injured Tony Romo at quarterback, Arizona's fans will hardly have any patience for that excuse, considering the 7-1 Cards have had to start a backup quarterback three times already this season. In fact, the Cardinals' starter, Carson Palmer, was the source of some early adversity, tossing a pick-six -- which was, it must be said, just his second interception of the season -- that helped the Cowboys jump out to an early lead (one that became a 10-0 advantage by the end of the first quarter). This was noteworthy because, heading into the game, Arizona had the second-best turnover differential in the NFL and had just five giveaways this season (tied for the second-least).
But rather than panic, the Cardinals settled in to score 28 unanswered points and coast to victory. In doing so, they ended DeMarco Murray's eight-game streak of 100-plus rushing yards and extended their own stretch of games without allowing a 100-yard rusher to 18. The Cards are now 14-4 in that span and have the league's best record this late in the season for the first time since 1966.
The Cardinals' win puts them two full games above the Seahawks and three games ahead of the 49ers -- two teams that many, myself included, pegged as the best contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl -- in the NFC West standings. But Arizona isn't off the hook just yet, as five of the team's final eight regular-season games will be against divisional opponents. And in addition to the still-dangerous Seahawks and 49ers, they have to twice face the Rams, who, though they have just three total wins, are 2-1 in the NFC West.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @CoachBillick.