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NFL Playoff Preview - New Orleans (12-5) at Seattle (13-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - And so we meet again.
But will the results differ this time around?
The Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints will find out when the two teams collide Saturday at CenturyLink Field in the Divisional Round of the playoffs with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line.
Seattle handed the Saints a 34-7 whooping back on Dec. 2 in the Pacific Northwest, but is facing a different New Orleans team from over a month ago. The Saints beat the frigid temperatures of Philadelphia for a 26-24 victory on Saturday night to punch their ticket for a rematch in the Emerald City.
"We've played there in some big atmospheres," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "It seems like every time we're there it's a primetime game. Having another crack at them ... obviously I look forward to this week of preparation, I look forward to the plan we're going to put together. They're a great football team, we're going to need our best effort to beat these guys. But if there's a team that can do it I believe it's us."
Brees threw for just 147 yards on 23-of-38 passing with a touchdown and no interceptions in the last meeting in Seattle, and was sacked once. The Saints amassed just 188 total yards that day and couldn't stop Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, as he connected on 22-of-30 attempts for 310 yards and three touchdown passes. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was held to 45 yards on 16 carries.
The Seahawks are 6-6 against the Saints in the regular season and 1-0 in the playoffs thanks to a 41-36 triumph back on Jan. 8, 2011. They are 5-2 in the previous seven encounters with New Orleans and 4-1 in the last five at home.
"We played them five games ago. We know they're going to come out here and try to give us their best shot just because of the way we handled them when they came in here," Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "So we just have to come focused and ready to win."
The NFC West-champion Seahawks, who lost at Atlanta in last season's Divisional playoffs, finished with a club-record tying 13-3 mark in the regular season and the eighth division title in franchise lore. The Seahawks are in the playoffs for the eighth time in the last 11 seasons and have won their last five postseason games at home dating back to 2005.
Seattle won its first four games to kick off the 2013 campaign and eventually grabbed an 11-1 record before losing two of three games. Seattle had a franchise-best 14-game home winning streak stopped versus Arizona on Dec. 22 and capped the regular season with a home win over St. Louis.
Wilson and Lynch once again carried the Seahawks offensively, as the second- year QB enjoyed another productive season with 3,357 passing yards on a career-high 407 attempts with 26 TD passes and nine interceptions, one off his 2012 total. He also ran for 539 yards and a score and his 24 wins are the most by a quarterback in his first two seasons in the Super Bowl era.
"We all believe in what we can do," Wilson said. "We've got to stay focused on the main goal and that's to win."
Lynch ran for at least 1,000 yards in his third straight season, tallying 1,257 yards on 301 carries with a career-high tying 12 TD runs. He set a career-high with 14 total touchdowns.
New Orleans overcame chilly elements with its Wild Card win over the favored Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field and rode the legs of former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
Ingram ran for just 386 yards on 78 carries in the regular season and saved his best for the playoffs, rumbling for 97 yards and a TD on 18 touches.
"I was injured early in the season and I just continued to work really hard to get myself back in playing shape," Ingram said. "My teammates are really great and they supported me so much and that really helps. Injuries do happen but you have to bounce back because injuries are a part of football and I just feel really good now."
The Saints, playing without running back Pierre Thomas because of a chest injury, compiled 185 rushing yards and 434 total. Tight end Jimmy Graham had a monster regular season and was limited to three receptions for 44 yards.
Brees had a subpar night with 250 yards passing, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. His only TD pass was a 24-yard toss to wideout Lance Moore.
"We're all about the here and now and being in the moment," Brees said. "We've got a great team. I hope that we're peaking at the right time."
New Orleans could see rainy conditions this weekend, but not nearly as cold weather.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Saints didn't blow the lights out at the Linc offensively and received a surprise performance from Ingram. Now they are facing a Seattle defense that led the NFL in points allowed (231), total defense (273.6), passing defense (172.0), takeaways (39), interceptions (28) and turnover differential (plus-20).
Graham had a quiet night last week and caught three passes for 42 yards and a score in the first meeting with Seattle. Can he be slowed again? It will be tough against some of the better defensive backs the Seahawks have in safety Earl Thomas, who set a career-high with 100 tackles and tied a career-high with five interceptions.
Seahawks outspoken cover man Richard Sherman tied a career-high with eight interceptions during the regular season and became first Seattle player to lead the NFL in interceptions since 1993 (Eugene Robinson). Expect Sherman to talk his game to Graham, Marques Colston and Kenny Stills. Moore and running back Darren Sproles are other options for New Orleans in the pass attack.
Sherman discussed this week's rematch and about having an edge after winning the previous meeting.
"I really don't think we have a mental edge to tell you the truth because they are just coming off a win on the road, their first playoff win on the road and they are playing good football," Sherman said. "They are running the ball extremely well and that is different from the game we played against them previously. I think they are a confident bunch. They are running their offense very effectively. I think they are feeling good."
If Pierre Thomas (questionable) is able to shake off a chest injury, he gives the Saints another weapon running the football and catching screen passes out of the backfield. Middle linebacker Wagner, who led the Seahawks with 120 tackles, and OLB Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith have a big responsibility in pass coverage and could faces issues with the Saints' backs and, more importantly, Graham.
Getting to Brees will be key for the Seahawks, as sack leader Michael Bennett posted 8 1/2 this season. Cliff Avril was second with 8.0 sacks and had the lone takedown of Brees in the last contest.
While the Seahawks have to prepare for New Orleans' pass attack, it won't be easy for the Saints on defense and coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints, though, were able to slow down LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, to the tune of 77 yards on 21 carries. McCoy managed to find the end zone, but it was tough sledding for him.
Now enter Lynch. Lynch is the only player in the NFL to rush for over 1,000 yards and score 10 rushing touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. He leads the NFL with 39 total touchdowns since 2011 and owns five 1,000-yard seasons in his career. Lynch has 311 rushing yards in his postseason career.
"Rob (Ryan) is always going to have something exotic," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said during a conference call."It's fun for us as players because I feel it causes other teams to have to worry about, you never what (defense) we're going to be in."
The Seahawks don't have the type of playmakers in the passing game much like New Orleans, but Wilson and his wideouts can get the job done. Golden Tate (898 yards, 5 TD), Doug Baldwin (778 yards, 5 TD) and tight end Zach Miller (387 yards, 5 TD) can stretch the field and the group could get stronger with the possible return of Percy Harvin. Harvin played in just one game this season because of a hip issue and was back at practice this week.
"We'll have to wait and see," Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said of Harvin's status for Saturday. "I don't know that yet."
There's no doubt the crowd will play a role in trying to disrupt Brees and his signals, but the Saints will have to ignore the atmosphere.
"It is deafening," Saints head coach Sean Payton said of the Seattle fans. "They do a great job. Their fans are educated. They understand when to be real loud and when to quiet down. The way the stadium is structured the noise stays in."
The Saints overcame the odds of playing outside in a polar climate to snap their road playoff drought and are feeling pretty good about themselves.
"Just knowing that 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," Brees said of Seattle. "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."
Brees said scoring points and getting a large enough lead will quiet the Seattle fans known as the 12th man. He has to tame the Seahawks' defense first and that will be an arduous task. Besides, it's tough enough to keep Sherman quiet no matter what the outcome is.
Seattle is well-rested, well-prepared and ready to get back to the NFC Championship game. New Orleans had a great run at the end of the regular season and an impressive Wild Card victory in Philly, but the Saints will go marching back to the Crescent City with another road playoff loss.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 27, Saints 17
01/09 14:17:43 ET