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NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson

Fresh off of their first road playoff victory in franchise history, the New Orleans Saints will go for two in a row when they take on the Seattle Seahawks in Saturday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game at 4:35 p.m. ET on FOX. Sean Payton’s Saints (12-5) defeated the Eagles 26-24 a week ago in Philadelphia, setting up a rematch in Seattle against Pete Carroll and the NFC West champion Seahawks (13-3).

Seattle handed New Orleans its worst loss of the season, dominating the Saints 34-7 on “Monday Night Football” to close out Week 13. The Seahawks were near unstoppable at home this season, going 7-1 at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks also have won their last five home playoff games, including a memorable 41-36 victory over the then-defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the Wild Card game following the 2010 season.

3 Things to Watch

Third Time’s a Charm?
New Orleans’ past two trips to the Pacific Northwest have not gone well. Three years ago, the defending Super Bowl champion Saints lost 41-36 to the Seahawks in an unforgettable Wild Card matchup. A little more than a month ago, Sean Payton’s team fared even worse at CenturyLink Field, as the Saints were dominated 34-7 on “Monday Night Football.” In the Wild Card game, New Orleans kept pace with Seattle thanks to a big game from Drew Brees (finished with 404 yards passing, 2 TDs), trailing just 24-20 at halftime. The Seahawks, with Matt Hasselbeck under center, scored 10 points in the third to take a 14-point lead, but the Saints answered with 10 straight of their own in the fourth to make it a four-point game. That was until Marshawn Lynch rumbled 67 yards, breaking six tackles and escaping from eight would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone. Not only did the highlight-reel run put the Seahawks away for good, it also introduced the NFL to “Beast Mode.” While the playoff game featured plenty of offense, New Orleans found the going much tougher in December when Seattle held Brees and company to one single touchdown and 188 total yards of offense. The Seahawks’ defense dominated the highly touted matchup of division leaders from the start, jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, thanks to a fumble return for a touchdown and a scoring strike from Russell Wilson to tight end Zach Miller. Brees attempted 38 passes on the night, but completed just 23 of them for 147 yards and one touchdown. He didn’t throw an interception and was sacked just once, but he still was held to the third-fewest passing yards in a game in his eight seasons with the Saints. As a team, New Orleans totaled just 44 yards rushing on 17 carries (2.6 ypc), and the 188 total yards represented the fewest by the Saints since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006. CenturyLink Field has certainly been a house of horrors for the Saints recently, but with the road playoff monkey finally off of their backs following last week’s win, perhaps this time will be different?

Seattle Slump?
The Seahawks went 7-1 at CenturyLink Field this season, feeding off the frenzied support of their home fans, also known as the 12th Man. One of the loudest home environments, the 12th Man set a new Guinness World Record for crowd noise when the 68,387 in attendance for the Week 13 “Monday Night Football” win over New Orleans were measured at 137.6 decibels. Not surprisingly, Seattle won easily, 34-7, a common theme this season. Buoyed by their loyal home crowd, the Seahawks outscored opponents 233-110 in their eight home games. Seattle owns home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, something that should not be overlooked. That said, the Seahawks were not at their best in their last two home games. In Week 16, Seattle lost to Arizona, 17-10, snapping their 14-game winning streak at home. The Seahawks did close the regular season out with a win the following week, but weren’t particularly impressive in defeating St. Louis 27-9. Against the Cardinals, the Seahawks were outgained 307-192 on offense, as Russell Wilson threw for just 108 yards and was sacked four times. Seattle also was flagged nine times for 102 yards. The defense did pick off Carson Palmer four times, but a 31-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd with 2:13 left and a two-point conversion by Rashard Mendenhall ended up being the difference in the game. Against the Rams, the defense again did its part, scoring the first points of the game on an interception return for a touchdown and completely shutting down the running game (13 yards). For the second straight contest, however, the offense struggled. Wilson went just 15-of-23 passing for 172 yards and was sacked four more times, while the team converted just four of 13 on third down. Seattle opened December by thoroughly dominating New Orleans on both sides of the ball, as Wilson (310 yards, 3 TDs) had arguably his best game of the season. However, the slippage at home at the end does give some pause for concern, especially considering the Seahawks worked so hard during the regular season to put themselves into this exact position. As long as the home team takes care of business on Saturday, the road to the Super Bowl will go through CenturyLink Field. There’s no doubt the 12th Man will be ready to go. The question is will Pete Carroll’s team give them a reason to get really loud?

New Orleans’ New-Look Offense?
The No. 4 passing offense in the regular season, the Saints went with a different game plan last week, and it paid off. New Orleans rushed for 185 yards on 36 carries in its Wild Card win over Philadelphia, the first road playoff victory in franchise history. Led by Mark Ingram’s 97 yards, the Saints’ rushing total was the second-highest this season, surpassed only by the 242 they racked up at home against Dallas in Week 10. Besides running the ball successfully against the Eagles, the Saints also held the league’s No. 1 rushing attack to just 80 yards, as rushing champion LeSean McCoy managed just 77 on 21 carries (3.7 ypc). Drew Brees threw for 250 yards, but he attempted just 30 passes, his fewest of the season, and had more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one). New Orleans’ ability to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, not only allowed the Saints to control the clock (had the ball for nearly 35 minutes), but also overcome Brees’ two miscues and Philadelphia’s fourth-quarter rally. One of the keys to winning in the postseason is running the ball and it looks like the Saints are peaking in this department at just the right time. The defense is giving up less than 80 yards rushing per game over the last three contests, while the offense is averaging 136.3 yards on the ground during that same span. Continuing this success will be crucial if the Saints want to put up a better fight in their second trip to the Pacific Northwest in a little more than a month. In Week 13, Seattle manhandled New Orleans 34-7, as the Seahawks outrushed them 127 to 44. The Saints’ defense actually did a good job containing Marshawn Lynch (16 att., 45 yds.) in that game, but Russell Wilson and backup running back Robert Turbin combined for 81 yards, while New Orleans’ top ground-gainer was Mark Ingram with a total of 22 (on eight carries). Leading rusher Pierre Thomas missed last week’s game because of a chest/back injury, but Ingram and undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson (8 att., 45 yds.) picked up the slack and then some. Seattle’s defense was No. 1 in the NFL for a reason and the Saints found out firsthand in December. However, some teams enjoyed success running against the Seahawks, something New Orleans would like to duplicate. Any semblance of a running game on Saturday should only help open up things for Brees and the likes of Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and others, especially if the Saints are able to contain Seattle’s ground game like they did in Philadelphia last week.

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New Orleans Key Player: Drew Brees, QB
The Saints earned their first road playoff win in franchise history last week against the Eagles due in large part to their success running the football and holding the NFL rushing champion in check. But make no mistake; this team will only go as far as Brees’ right arm will take it. The diminutive signal-caller has already established himself as one of the greatest to ever play and he has the statistics and Super Bowl ring to back this up, but he has not enjoyed much success in the postseason on the road. The Saints’ first playoff win away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome also was Brees’ first, as he’s now 1-3 on the road in his career. In these four games, Brees has averaged an impressive 367.5 yards passing per contest, but his completion percentage (62.4) is lower than his career mark (65.9) and he’s had nearly as many total turnovers (seven) as touchdowns (nine). He also played one of the worst games of his career (23-38, 147 yards, TD, fumble) in the first meeting with Seattle in December, which led to the Saints’ worst loss of the season. Regardless of how well the Saints run the ball or fare on defense, they will need Brees to contribute if they want to make it two road playoff wins in a row.

Seattle Key Player: Marshawn Lynch, RB
New Orleans is already familiar with Lynch in the playoffs, as the Saints were the first victim of the burly running back’s “Beast Mode.” In the Seahawks’ Wild Card win over the then-defending Super Bowl champs three years ago, Lynch sealed the deal with an electrifying 67-yard touchdown rumble that featured six broken tackles, eight flailing would-be tacklers and one powerful stiff arm on his way to the end zone. Lynch finished that game with 131 yards on 19 carries, but followed it up with just four yards on two attempts as Seattle lost in Chicago 35-24 in the Divisional round. Last season, Lynch came up big once again, this time racking up 132 yards in the Wild Card win in Washington, before stumbling to just 46 in the Divisional round loss in Atlanta. In the regular season, Lynch finished sixth in rushing with 1,257 yards, but he didn’t post more than 97 in each of his last six games, including only 45 in the first meeting against New Orleans. Russell Wilson has been near unbeatable at home in his career, but he will need Lynch’s help if he wants to keep things going in the postseason. The Saints’ defense held LeSean McCoy, the league’s rushing champion, to just 77 yards last week. Can Lynch be beastly against the Saints again or will the visitors continue their dominance on the ground this postseason?

Final Analysis

Give credit to New Orleans for finally getting that first road playoff win. The Saints dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against the Eagles, which allowed them to use their running game to control the clock and put them in position to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired. The road gets much tougher from here out, however, and no one knows that better than Sean Payton’s team.

Seattle went 7-1 at home and enjoys one of the best home-field advantages that exist in all of sports, let alone the NFL. The Seahawks have waited for this opportunity for a while and I fully expect Pete Carroll’s team to capitalize on playing in front of the 12th Man at CenturyLink Field.

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The Saints will put up much more of a fight than they did back in December, but in the end the Seahawks’ defense is just too much for Drew Brees and company to overcome. Russell Wilson shakes off the rust from the long layoff, as he and the rest of his teammates take care of business at home and earn a trip back to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in eight seasons.

Seattle 24, New Orleans 17