Saints ready for another test in Seattle

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees cheers on his team before a playoff game against Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees cheers on his team before a playoff game against Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014.

Saints safety Rafael Bush’s emotions were conflicted when he realized his team’s flight out of Seattle wouldn’t leave the night of Dec. 2 because of a cracked windshield.

On one hand, he wanted to split town pronto. The Seahawks had thrashed the Saints 34-7, and he had injured his ankle during the game.

“That was the worst loss of the season,” he said. “We pretty much got embarrassed.”

Yet on the other hand, Bush and the rest of the Saints felt they couldn’t play another game in Seattle soon enough. That would mean they had advanced in the playoffs, and they’d be in a conference championship or divisional-round game facing the Seahawks, who essentially secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC the night they throttled New Orleans.

The Saints subsequently lost the NFC South title — and the NFC’s No. 2 seed — to Carolina, ruling out a rematch in Seattle with a Super Bowl berth on the line but setting the scene for Saturday’s divisional showdown at CenturyLink Field.

The Saints said it doesn’t affect them much that they’re clashing with quarterback Russell Wilson and his Seahawks a week earlier than they intended. They long ago came to terms with the reality that, no matter what stage of the postseason, they’d have to make a stop in Seattle’s rainy, windy, deafening home field, where they’ve won once and lost twice on the three occasions they’ve visited under coach Sean Payton.

“If we want to go where we want to go ... eventually we were going to have to go back to Seattle,” said Bush, who has played in two games since injuring his ankle, including the Saints’ wild-card victory in Philadelphia last Saturday. “We’re fortunate enough to get this opportunity again, and hopefully we don’t let it slip out of our hands this time.”

The Saints’ first opportunity against Seattle evaporated when they gained their fewest yards on offense (188) since 2003 and scored their fewest points since 2008 against the NFL’s top-ranked defense.

The Seahawks only improved from there: They held two more opponents to even fewer yards later in December.

Wilson has no such problems with the Saints defense. He threw for three touchdowns and 310 yards while posting the second-highest passer rating (139.6) of his career — which includes just one loss in 16 home games.

“Nothing seemed to go right that whole weekend,” Saints tight end Benjamin Watson said. “The plane having ... issues was the icing on the cake after a thorough beatdown on behalf of the Seahawks.”

After that game, Payton told his players, “Remember this moment, because there’s a chance we’ll be back here,” five-time All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said.

“And here we are,” Evans added. “We looked at the film, we corrected the things we needed to and we’re going in with some new wrinkles.”

For one, the Saints defense held Carolina to its two lowest totals on offense for the season, and it kept Philadelphia’s second-ranked attack 161 yards below its average.

And the Saints ground game that picked up a sparse 2.6 yards per run on 17 attempts Dec. 2 has shown itself to be much more reliable lately. In their past two road games, the Saints racked up 126 yards on 30 carries in a last-minute defeat at Carolina against the Panthers’ second-ranked defense, then gained 185 yards on 36 carries against Philadelphia’s top-10 rushing defense.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he spent the week reminding his players that the Saints are led by a group of veterans who know what it takes to capture a league title.

“They are a fantastic team that just won a big road game that people questioned (whether) they could win,” he said. “This is a loaded football team. ... We need to make sure we understand that.”

The Seahawks do, Saints right tackle Zach Strief said.

“It’s a new game,” he said. “We’re not carrying that past game with us. It’s not counting against us. So we have as good of a chance (as) anyone to go in and win.”