Top storyline: Saints get another crack at Seahawks
When the New Orleans Saints’ buses rolled away from Seattle’s CenturyLink Field on a dreary night in early December, players and coaches alike pretty much knew they’d have to go back there to get where they eventually want to go.
They were right: but their timing was off by one week.
After taking a 34-7 beating from the Seahawks on Dec. 2, the Saints knew the Seahawks had the inside track to the NFC’s top seed for the playoffs.
The Saints? They were suddenly eying the No. 2 seed — and a possible rematch with the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game on Jan. 19 — until two losses in the next three games dramatically altered their postseason plans.
When the teams meet in the divisional playoffs Saturday, the Saints will be more than happy to be there after advancing from the wild-card round with a 26-24 win against the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
The clutch road win on Shayne Graham’s 32-yard field goal as time expired gave the Saints (12-5) more than another opportunity against the Seahawks (13-3). It gave them hope after leaving there in December with some question marks.
At that point, the Saints desperately just wanted to get back.
“Just knowing we have to get better, and the road to the playoffs and the Super Bowl looks like it’s going to go through that place,” quarterback Drew Brees said of the message that came from that night.
“If we want to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, then we better find a way to go there and win. I was just hoping we have another opportunity … and here we are with that opportunity.”
Key matchup: Saints receivers vs. Seahawks secondary
In their Dec. 2 matchup, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary showed the Saints receivers a thing or two with their physicality and will undoubtedly aim to do that the second time around.
While the Saints have some big, physical receivers in Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, they were slowed by the Seahawks’ big three that dreadful night.
Cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor all made the Pro Bowl after combining for 16 interceptions — including eight by Sherman.
So creating enough separation and getting open for Brees is a must for Graham, Colston, Meachem, Lance Moore and Kenny Stills.
X factor: Seahawks ‘12th Man’
The Saints won’t only have to take on the Seahawks, but also their famed 12th Man — which set a Guinness World Record in jacking the decibel level up to 137.6 when the teams met in December.
The Saints offensive players used custom-made earpieces to combat the din that night and will likely use them again after having no false-start penalties and just one delay of game infraction in the first game.
Saints coach Sean Payton noted this week that nothing much worked in a 27-point loss that night, but Brees said the earpieces were a help against a crowd that has been responsible for more false-starts than any other home venue in the NFL since 2005.
Brees said it’s possible to take the 12th Man, which has seen the Seahawks win 15 of their last 16 games at home, out of a game.
When asked how, he said, “You make plays. You score points. You get enough of a lead. … That’s how you take the crowd out of a game.”
3 and out
1 GETTING EVEN?: After losing the first four playoff games in franchise history, the Saints could get back to the .500 mark with by beating the Seahawks. The Saints are 7-8 all-time in the playoffs — 6-3 under Sean Payton — after last week’s wild-card victory at Philadelphia.
2 EXPERIENCE COUNTS: Nineteen Saints on the 53-man active roster have played in at least two playoff games with the club. Quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, tackle Zach Strief and wide receiver Marques Colston Have played in all nine postseason games of the Payton era.
3 FLAG CITY: With the 12th Man roaring at record-breaking levels, Seahawks’ foes have 132 false-start penalties since 2005. A flag bearing the number 12 in honor of the fans is hoisted high above one end zone by a celebrity prior to kickoff, which whips the crowd into a frenzy.
About the Seahawks
After having to go on the road as the No. 5 seed a year ago, the Seahawks are right where they want to be for their 2013 playoff debut — in raucous CenturyLink Field.
The Seahawks, who were 11-1 after thrashing the Saints on Dec. 2, took what they hope is the first step to the Super Bowl when they landed the No. 1 seed in the regular-season finale.
That came after they limped to a 2-2 finish but still were the best in the NFC West — holding off the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
Despite wobbling a bit lately, the Seahawks are confident they can regain their form after a first-round bye.
Why shouldn’t they be confident?
Statistically, their defense led the NFL in total yards (273.6), passing yards (172.0), fewest points allowed (14.4) and takeaways (39).
Then, there’s an offense that ranks only 17th in total yards, but features two dynamic players in quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch, whom the Saints know all too well from the 2010 playoffs.