The passage of time has done little to dull the senses from that Saturday in the Pacific Northwest nearly 23 months ago, the day Sean Payton and his unsuspecting New Orleans Saints walked into a wild-card playoff ambush in downtown Seattle.
The sights and sounds come alive at the mere thought of Jan. 8, 2011: the deafening crowd noise at Qwest Field, the beastly run by Marshawn Lynch and the Saints’ shocking 41-36 loss to the upstart Seahawks, a double-digit home underdog who became the first division champion in league history to enter the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.
Throughout the week, coach Pete Carroll’s team had been the comedic target of late-night TV talk-show hosts, sports cable analysts, bloggers and newspaper columnists. They all implied that Seattle didn’t belong in the postseason, that the NFL needed to re-think its seeding format and that the Saints would win in a walkover.
To this day, some current and former Saints can’t explain what happened.
“It’s one of those games where you look back and say, ‘What, are you kidding me?’ ” said former Saints fullback Heath Evans, now an analyst with NFL Network. “We had beat them earlier in the year. It wasn’t that we took them too lightly. I guess call it the perfect storm, call it lightning in a bottle, call it whatever you want. But they beat us.”
On Monday night, Payton and the Saints return to the scene of that accident at 800 Occidental Avenue South to play a game with meaningful playoff implications. The winner takes a huge step toward securing homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Seattle’s home venue now answers to the name CenturyLink Field. But the Seahawks’ fans — a.k.a. the 12th Man — answer to no one.
In part because of the loud, proud capacity crowd of 67,000, the Seahawks have built a 13-game winning streak at home (14 counting that playoff win against the Saints) and are favored by 41/2 points.
In 13 starts, Seattle second-year quarterback Russell Wilson has never experienced a home loss.
“I’m going to be honest: My ears have never rung that long after a dome game,” Evans said. “That’s no offense to our crowd, but it was a deafening atmosphere. My ears rang for three weeks after that game.
“I don’t know how you can prepare for that type of noise. You can pump noise into practice and do a lot of that stuff, but when it’s consistent for a three-plus-hour game, you can’t simulate that in practice.”
No doubt, the 12th Man will bring its “A” game Monday, much like it did for the playoff game against the Saints when Lynch ran like Sasquatch in final four minutes.
Lynch broke nine tackles and stiff-armed Saints cornerback Tracy Porter into next year en route to a 67-yard romp to the end zone, part of a 19-carry, 131-yard performance. That run for the ages extended the Seahawks’ lead to 41-30 and ultimately provided their winning cushion.
With each yard and defender left in Lynch’s wake, the sellout crowd reached decibels comparable to a jet engine. It was later determined that the 12th Man’s reaction was enough to measure the shaking equivalent of a small earthquake.
Saints linebacker David Hawthorne, then a starter on the Seahawks defense, had a ringside seat for Lynch’s epic run.
“I just remember how electric it got (in the stadium),’’ he said. “There were plenty of times when we thought he was down. When he kept going, you could just kind of feel the crowd get behind him. It was a highlight. You see it on every NFL reel today.”
The run remains a big hit on the Internet.
“I think (Lynch) ran over every one of our guys on defense — twice,” Evans said with a chuckle. “That’s no disrespect to any of them. It was one of those magical runs. It was a combination of power, speed, elusiveness and then intestinal fortitude to try to embarrass everybody on that defense.’’
Only one player who started on that Saints defense will be active for Monday night’s game: safety Roman Harper. Current starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins was injured and did not play. Will Smith, Patrick Robinson, Jabari Greer and Jonathan Vilma are on injured reserve. Porter is with Oakland. The other starters (Darren Sharper, Scott Shanle, Sedrick Ellis, Alex Brown and Marvin Mitchell) are retired or no longer in the league.
On Monday night, in the din of CenturyLink Field, the Saints get another crack at tackling Lynch, the ghost who haunts them. It won’t be easy: He ranks among the NFL’s rushing leaders with 925 yards and nine touchdowns.
“He’s the head of the Seahawks train, the engine,” Hawthorne said. “He’s an elite back. We won’t let him slip out of our vision.”