Top storyline: Saints, Seahawks vying for No. 1 seed
While NFL coaches and players are busy thinking only about the next game on the regular-season schedule, fans know it’s never too early to look ahead a little and start talking playoffs.
Now that Thanksgiving is behind us and December has begun, playoff talk will heat up as postseason contenders begin to distinguish themselves. That’s why Monday night’s showdown between the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks in CenturyLink Field could wind up being key to the upper portion of the seeding process in the NFC.
The Saints and Seahawks will dutifully tell you it’s one game — nothing more, nothing less — as they meet in the last contest before the final quarter of the season gets underway. But the stakes are high, with the winner having the inside track on the top seed and the home-field edge that goes with it for the NFC playoffs.
The Seahawks have won their past six games and hold a one-game lead on the Saints, which means they can get pretty close to wrapping up the No. 1 seed by night’s end. With a victory, the Seahawks would be two games ahead of the Saints and have the tiebreaker as well — giving them a virtual three-game cushion over the Saints with four remaining.
The scales would tip in the Saints’ favor with a victory. While they’d be tied at the top of the conference, the Saints would have the tiebreaker with four games to play.
Yes, it’s one game. But it’s a huge one for both teams.
About the Seahawks
Going into Monday night’s matchup, the Seahawks are on a six-game winning streak.
The impressive surge followed their only setback of the season, a 34-28 loss to Indianapolis that came away from the noisy confines of CenturyLink Field back on Oct. 6.
Coach Pete Carroll’s Seahawks figured to challenge the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC West title after coming close to reaching the conference championship game a year ago. Standing 4-4 at midseason, they went 7-1 the rest of the way and gave the Atlanta Falcons a scare in the divisional playoffs before falling.
With a dominant running game that ranks third in the league, the Seahawks have won 17 of their past 19 regular-season games. They rely on second-year quarterback Russell Wilson to beat teams with his arm and legs, and a defense that ranks second in total yards and passing yards allowed and is tied for second in points allowed.
Key matchup: Russell Wilson vs. Saints front seven
While the Saints certainly know running back Marshawn Lynch is a beast, Wilson is the key to a balanced Seahawks offense that embraced the read-option last season.
At 5-foot-11 and 204 pounds, Wilson is hardly the prototype NFL quarterback. But the second-year pro is perfect for what the Seahawks do and in 27 regular-season games has averaged 236.6 passing and rushing yards — accounting for 66.8 percent of his team’s total.
The Saints’ fifth-ranked defense knows it must keep Wilson, who has thrown 45 touchdown passes and run for five more, contained as much as possible.
If Wilson can shake loose for some early runs, it’ll make Lynch even tougher to defend.
X factor: Seattle CB Richard Sherman
At 6-foot-3, Sherman is a lot bigger than most cornerbacks and has all the physical tools needed to cover any of the league’s top wide receivers.
The question: Can he cover 6-7, 265-pound tight end Jimmy Graham? Several teams have tried covering Graham with a cornerback this season — and most had little to no success. Graham has 65 receptions and 11 touchdowns in the first 11 games.
The exception was the New England Patriots’ Pro Bowl corner, Aqib Talib, who shut out Graham on Oct. 13 — the first time that happened to Graham since midway through his rookie season of 2010.
Saints coach Sean Payton said after the Patriots game that you need a special cornerback like Talib to physically take on Graham.
Sherman, an All-Pro who has 16 interceptions in just 43 career games, could be that guy if coach Pete Carroll decides to give it a try.
Three and out
1. EXTRA HELP: The Seahawks’ famed “12th Man” has helped make it tough on opposing teams by bringing the noise each week. During their current 13-game home winning streak, the Seahawks have outscored opponents by a whopping 233 points.
2. POINT DIFFERENTIAL: Speaking of points, the Saints and Seahawks are two of the top three teams in that category heading into Week 13. The Seahawks ranked second in outscoring their opponents by 127 points, while the Saints were third at plus-109.
3. PRIME-TIME COACHES: Saints coach Sean Payton and his counterpart, the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, have produced solid records in prime-time games. Payton is 18-6 (.750), and Carroll is 8-1 (.889) going into Monday’s game.