Saints Head Coach Sean Payton will be looking to guide the defending champs back to the Super Bowl, but first the Seattle Seahawks are their opponents in the Wildcard Round
New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (7-9), Saturday, Jan. 8th, 4:30 p.m. ET on NBC
Broadcast Team: Tom Hammond, Mike Mayock, and Alex Flanagan (Field Reporter)
Already everyone is moving the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints to the divisional round of the playoffs. Yes, the Saints have playoff experience and the lowly Seahawks – in the playoffs for the fifth time in the past seven seasons — are the running NFL joke as they are the league’s first losing record playoff team in a full 16-game season. But these are the playoffs and anything can happen, especially with New Orleans having a host of injuries to some key players (see leading rushers Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on I/R). The Saints are trying to become the first team to repeat since New England did so in 2003-04, but they will have to take inspiration from the 2007 Giants by winning three road games, starting with Seattle.
Back in Week 11 these two teams met in New Orleans with the Saints winning by a score of 34-19 and it wasn’t even that close. In the game, star quarterback Drew Brees (selected to 3rd straight Pro Bowl) passed for numbers 29-43, 382 yards, 4 TDs, and 2 INTs while getting the ball to WR Marques Colston early and often against an overmatched Seahawks secondary. I fully expect Brees (448-658, 4620 yards (1st in NFC), 33 TDs (1st in NFC), 22 INTs, and a 90.9 passer rating) and Colston (84 rec, 1023 yards, 12.2 ypr, and 7 TDs) to pick right where they left off, but the Saints have to find balance in this game and that means running the football. New Orleans will have Reggie Bush in this one (Broken leg earlier in the season), but it will be real interesting to see if former Seahawk Julius Jones wants revenge on his old team. Whether the Saints’ featured runner is Jones or someone else, expect head coach Sean Payton to attack the Seahawks smallish defense by establishing the run behind his huge offensive line led by Pro Bowl player OG Jahri Evans.
Balance will allow Brees to then go play-action to receivers Colston, Lance Moore, and Robert Meachem – New Orleans led the NFL with a completion percentage of 68% — against a Seahawks defense that allowed an average of 25.4 points per game to their opposition. It will be incumbent on Seahawks defensive leaders LB Lofa Tatupu, rookie FS Earl Little (5 INTs) and team sacks leader DE Chris Clemons (11 sacks) to make big plays against the Saints high-octane offense. When the Seahawks have the ball, head coach Pete Carroll will be turning to former Super Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselback – returning from a hip injury – to spark the underdogs. To tell the truth, I was surprised that the Seahawks are going with Hasselbeck after back-up Charlie “Serpico” Whitehurst played so well the week before in a 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams for the NFC West title. And it is no secret that Hasselbeck has to play better for Seattle to have a chance — accounted for 13 turnovers compared to 5 TDs final five regular season starts. Also somehow Seattle (ran 17 times for 58 yards in first meeting) must get a run game going against a Saints defense that can be vulnerable to physical runners.
I expect Seattle to try and establish running back Marshawn Lynch (202 rushes for 737 yards and 6 TDs) as the former Bills workhorse wants to show he is a playoff caliber back. Hasselback will also be looking for TE Jeff Carlson and NFL Comeback Player of the Year candidate WR Mike Williams (65 rec, 751 yards, 11.6 ypr, and 2 TDs). But there are two areas that fans cannot forget when they are breaking down this game. Turnovers are going to be “huge” in this game as both teams are a negative in turnover ratio (Seattle -9 and New Orleans -6). Watch for Little for Seattle and a very good secondary for New Orleans led by DB Malcom Jenkins to look to be opportunistic. And the second area to watch is special teams, the Seahawks have stellar kicker Olindo Mare (3 FGs in WK17 win) and explosive KR Leon Washington (11.3 yards per punt return). While the Saints have Bush, but are not close to being sold on inconsistent kicker Garret Hartley (20/25 on FG Attempts in 2011).
Saints head coach Sean Payton said of playing the Seahawks in the playoffs, “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We know it’s going to be a tough place to play. The crowd noise is as loud as it is in this league for an outdoor venue. For us, it’s all about playing your best football at the right time, and that time is right now. Clearly, everyone recognizes that you have to win to advance.”
LV’s Pick: I know it is kind of mean to say, but the Seahawks do not belong in the playoffs. Though I am all for keeping the existing playoff format, it is a shame that the Bucs and NY Giants, both 10-6, are sitting at home while Seattle is playing. You expect Seattle’s raucous 12th Man crowd to try and rally the home Seahawks, but Brees, Payton, and Company have been here before. Look for Brees and the Saints offense to jump out to an early lead then cruise home as they get ready for another meeting with the Falcons. BTW: If the Seahawks do lose as we expect, you know it will be by 15 points or more — Saints win 28-13
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)