Vargas: Monday night's visit to Seattle will provide Saints’ toughest test yet

Week after week this year, it has been one thing or another for the Saints.

On Nov. 17, they hosted a hard-hitting San Francisco team that had beaten them once in each of the previous two seasons — then they kicked off on the road against their nemeses, the Atlanta Falcons, just 96 hours later on barely any rest to play their third game in 12 days.

Earlier, there was a stretch when the Saints had to try to win at a place they hadn’t since 2000 — Chicago. The following week, they were tasked with visiting a future Hall of Fame quarterback, the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, and his future Hall of Fame coach, Bill Belichick.

All the while, defensive starters such as nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, strong safety Roman Harper and free safety Malcolm Jenkins have missed multiple games with injuries. Starting cornerback Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson, a backup cornerback who was important to the Saints’ secondary, suffered season-ending knee injuries in Weeks 11 and 2, respectively.

Several other veteran players on the defense suffered year-ending injuries before the season began. And on offense, key men such as wide receiver Marques Colston, running back Darren Sproles, tight end Benjamin Watson and right guard Jahri Evans have all missed a game, if not two, while hurt.

Coach Sean Payton’s Saints have nonetheless triumphed nine of the 11 times they’ve taken the field this year. The MVP-worthy Drew Brees headed into this week second in the NFL after passing for 331.5 yards per game and 28 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. The defense complementing him was surrendering the league’s fifth-fewest yards (309.9) and points (17.8).

Yet, on paper, the Saints’ 12th outing Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks (10-1) dwarfs all of the obstacles New Orleans has encountered and, for the most part, handled.

First, there’s the conditions. It’s not just that CenturyLink Field and its vaunted “12th Man” will be deafening — it’s that it will be at or near freezing and possibly wet.

As The New Orleans Advocate’s partners at WWLTV.com pointed out this week, the Saints are 2-6 in games that Payton coached, the starters played and it was 40 degrees or colder. The wins came over teams with a combined record of 8-24.

Then, there’s the sky-high stakes. The Seahawks at the moment are the only team in the NFC that’s ahead of the Saints in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. A victory gives New Orleans the head-to-head tiebreaker over Seattle if the sides conclude the regular season with the same records.

If the Saints lose, the Seahawks essentially will lock up home-field advantage, seizing a two-game lead over New Orleans as well as the tiebreaker with four weeks of play pending.

Even worse, a loss would weaken the Saints’ hold on the NFC South, dropping them into a tie with the Carolina Panthers, who improved to 9-3 after thrashing Tampa Bay 27-6 on Sunday. New Orleans hosts the Panthers, winners of eight straight, in six days, then visits them Dec. 22.

But this is no time to look ahead, and the Saints know that.

Standing in front of them is a second-year Seahawks quarterback who’s undefeated in his 13 starts in Seattle. Russell Wilson has won 21 career games and needs just one more victory to tie a record for wins in a quarterback’s first two seasons in the NFL.

He’s astoundingly versatile. Of the 20 NFL quarterbacks who have taken at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps, Wilson gets the most yards per passing attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. But he also leads that group of QBs in scrambles after dropping back to pass, making him a maddening dual-threat who gets yards with his legs if there’s no options through the air.

Wilson has passed for 2,362 yards this year, which is well above average, and 19 touchdowns, a top 10 sum. He’s accurate, throwing the second-fewest interceptions — six — among the aforementioned 20 QBs.

Additionally, Wilson has rushed for 409 yards on 72 runs — a staggering 5.7 yards per attempt — and a score. He’s not flawless, losing possession on five of his eight fumbles, but the nine game-winning, fourth-quarter comebacks he has orchestrated are the second-most in the first two seasons of a QB’s career since 1970.

“(Wilson is) anything you would need from the quarterback position,” Brees said. “There’s just so much he can do that can hurt you.”

Should Wilson’s passing falter, the Seahawks can rely on the NFL’s third-best rushing attack. But the problems Seattle poses for the Saints don’t stop on offense.

The defense headed into the week tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 16. The unit’s allowing the second-fewest total yards per game (293.2), and it gives up the second-fewest passing yards per game (180.4).

Two of Seattle’s cornerbacks will be unavailable to face the Saints. Brandon Browner is out with a groin injury, and he’s also contesting a suspension related to violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. Walter Thurmond is serving a four-game suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy.

But cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas remain. Those three have combined for 10 interceptions, which is more than 13 entire NFL teams have, meaning the Seahawks’ secondary is still one of the most dangerous adversaries with whom Brees and his colleagues will have to deal.

Despite all that, numerous Saints this week insisted they didn’t alter the way they’ve been preparing for games just because the Seahawks are next. They repeatedly pointed at their record on the road: It’s the NFL’s second-best since 2006 (36-24) and tops since 2009 (24-12).

“Guys are working late, players are practicing, studying and preparing just like we did on a short week last week, just like we did the week before last week,” Payton said. “We feel like we’ve got a pretty good itinerary.”

As long as the Saints sit atop the NFC by the time they board their flight back home, few will dispute that.