Saints give credit to Seahawks

For every elated underdog in victory, there’s a heartbroken favorite in defeat.

On Saturday, that was the New Orleans Saints.

The defending NFL champions were expected to breeze past the Seahawks in Saturday’s wild-card playoff game, coming into Qwest Field as the biggest road favorite in playoff history. Instead the visitors were stunned in a 41-36 loss and left to wallow and wonder “What could have been?” in a silent, subdued locker room.

“It’s only appropriate to start off with congratulating Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks for a big win,” said Saints coach Sean Payton in front of a backdrop that proudly displayed the Saints as last year’s Super Bowl XLIV champions.

“They played a real good game tonight. It’s disappointing to be on the other end of it. I thought in the end we weren’t good enough in a number of areas.”

The return game? Shut down.

The high-powered offense? Forced to settle for three short field goals.

The NFL’s fourth-ranked defense? Allowed 415 total yards, more than 100 above its average, and a season-worst 41 points.

“It’s no fun to lose in the first round obviously, because we had high aspirations and expectations for this team,” said quarterback Drew Brees. “As we looked at the playoff picture we said, ‘We’re as good as anybody. We have as good a shot as anybody and how many teams can say that they’ve gone back and repeated Super Bowl championships?’ ”

New Orleans appeared to get off to a championship start, taking an early 10-0 lead after a 1-yard touchdown reception by former Seahawks fullback Heath Evans. It seemed to kick off an expected result.

“We felt like we had the game pretty much under control in that first quarter,” said running back Reggie Bush, who left the game in the second half with a leg injury. “Then all of a sudden it started to get a little out of hand.”

After the Saints scored early in the second quarter — a rushing touchdown by another former Seahawk, Julius Jones — to make it 17-7, Seattle answered immediately with a 27-3 run to take the lead for good.

Despite trailing by as many as 14 in the second half, Brees said his team never had doubts about a comeback. Even after a highlight-reel touchdown run by Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch appeared to clinch the win late in the fourth quarter, New Orleans drove the length of the field and might have had a chance for the win were it not for a failed onside kick.

“We dug ourselves in a pretty deep hole and couldn’t get out of it,” Bush said.

There were a handful of extra challenges to overcome as well. After placing running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on injured reserve in the week’s buildup, fellow backs Bush and Jones each left the game Saturday with injuries. There was also that rabid crowd of 66,336 to deal with.

“This is definitely one of the louder places in the league,” Brees said. “Not just at moments, but consistently throughout the entire game. Great fans, and obviously that’s a big advantage.”

The defeated champions offered no excuses, however, and placed the praise rightly on the victors.

“They didn’t play like a 7-9 team today,” Brees said.

Added Payton: “Credit them. It was a big win for their franchise.”