The defending Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints had the luxury of playing in their own backyard during last year’s NFC Playoffs en route to the franchise’s first NFL title.
Now they’ll have to go on the road to open the 2010 postseason, which begins with Saturday’s matchup against the NFC West-champion Seattle Seahawks from Qwest Field.
The Saints were 6-2 on the road this season, giving them consecutive winning records away from the Big Easy for the first time since the 1991-92 campaigns, so it shouldn’t be an issue competing in the Emerald City.
“We’re going to have to have a good week of practice. We recognize that [the week] is a little bit shorter and we’ll be traveling out there for the first game Saturday,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton in regards to preparing for the Seahawks. “We’re looking forward to the challenge and we know it’s going to be a tough place to play.”
Since Payton took over as head coach in New Orleans, his teams are 4-1 in the playoffs with a pair of NFC title game appearances and of course, last year’s win over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees just joined Manning as the only signal- callers in league history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in five consecutive seasons, and finished the regular season ranked first in the NFL in completion percentage, second in completions, tied for second in touchdown passes and ranked third in passing yardage. Brees originally broke the NFL record for completions in a season with 448, but Manning took over in the final week of 2010 to finish with 450.
The Saints will be counting on Brees to get them their first-ever playoff win on the road against a team he lit up back in Week 11 at the Superdome in leading New Orleans to a 34-19 victory. Even though the Seahawks racked up 424 yards of offense in that game, New Orleans outdid them with 494 total yards, thanks to Brees’ 383 yards through the air and four touchdown passes. Wide receiver Marques Colston had a great day as well for the Saints, coming up with 113 yards and a pair of scores on eight receptions.
Colston, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem will see plenty of chances to make a play on Saturday as New Orleans looks to get its third-ranked passing attack in gear in one of the loudest stadiums in the league. The team won’t have leading rusher Chris Ivory due to a season-ending foot injury, however. Ivory had 99 yards and a score in the Saints’ rout of the Seahawks on Nov. 21 and compiled 716 rushing yards in his rookie season.
New Orleans is 5-6 overall in the postseason and is a heavy favorite to even that mark on Saturday, though the franchise has never won in three lifetime playoff games at enemy venues.
Seattle entered the record books by becoming the first team in league history to win a division with a sub-.500 record. It completed the 2010 season with a 7-9 mark and wrestled the NFC West away from the St. Louis Rams with this past Sunday’s 16-6 triumph at Qwest Field.
To the victor go the spoils was the motto for that matchup, as the Seahawks earned their fifth division title in the past seven years and registered their sixth playoff appearance over the previous eight seasons by topping the Rams. They hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season and made a Super Bowl appearance after going 13-3 in the 2005 campaign.
Head coach Pete Carroll was able to get the franchise back into the postseason in his first year at the helm, but is currently faced with a dilemma at quarterback.
Since Matt Hasselbeck was sidelined for last weekend’s division-clinching win with a hip injury suffered a week earlier against Tampa Bay, Carroll handed the job to backup Charlie Whitehurst, who did just enough to get the win by completing 22-of-36 passes for 192 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Hasselbeck and Whitehurst split the reps in Seattle’s first practice in preparation for the Saints, and Carroll said the two will share snaps throughout the week before a decision is made on who starts.
“We’ll figure it out, we don’t know yet,” Carroll was quoted as saying in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. “Right now our concerns are about health, making sure everyone’s OK. The way the game worked out, it really helped us. Charlie did a great job to survive that game. The rush was on him, he was running for his life at times.”
Hasselbeck is a semi-mobile quarterback, but would have struggled avoiding the rush against the Rams with an ailing hip. With an extra week of rest, he may get the nod for Saturday’s game just by reputation. Hasselbeck is one start away from tying former offensive tackle Walter Jones for most postseason starts in franchise history, and he holds club playoff records for pass attempts (325), completions (189), yards (2,211) and touchdowns (11).
Seattle has a tough task at hand with the defending Super Bowl champions in town and hasn’t played all that well in the past few weeks. Sunday’s 10-point triumph over the Rams was just the team’s third victory in its past 10 games.
The Saints took a 6-5 edge in their all-time regular-season series with the Seahawks by virtue of the above-mentioned 15-point win at the Superdome back in Week 11. New Orleans also posted a 28-17 victory in its last visit to Qwest Field, which took place in 2007 and halted a three-game losing streak in the set, and is 3-3 in six overall trips to Seattle. These teams have never faced one another in postseason play.
Three of Payton’s four playoff wins with the Saints occurred during their run to the Super Bowl last year. Carroll is 1-2 in the playoffs, with each of those contests coming during his three-year tenure with New England from 1997-99.
Carroll is 0-2 lifetime against the Saints, including a 1998 loss while with the Patriots. Payton owns a 2-0 career mark against Seattle, with November’s meeting his only head-to-head encounter with the former USC head coach.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Saints’ claim to fame is their rabid pass attack, which finished third in the NFL with an average of 277.6 passing yards per game in the regular season. In order for them to keep moving on in the playoffs, however, Brees (4,620 passing yards, 33 TD, 22 INT) will have to be on the same page with all of his receivers and the offensive line must offer the gold standard in protection. Brees has been sacked seven times in the past three games, including a trio of times in last week’s 23-13 loss to Tampa Bay. The front line was able to keep Brees’ jersey clean on a run to the Super Bowl last season, which helps explain why he has an NFL-best 66.7 completion percentage in the postseason. Brees’ 103.7 passer rating in the playoffs is second-highest in league annals — only behind Green Bay legend Bart Starr (104.8). Brees, who is hoping to at least duplicate the type of performance he had against Seattle more than a month ago, threw for a season-low 196 yards versus Tampa Bay on Sunday, and his 22 interceptions this season are a career high. Since Ivory was placed on injured reserve this week, Pierre Thomas, Julius Jones and Reggie Bush will carry the load for the 28th-ranked ground attack. Bush (150 rushing yards) compiled a team-high 70 yards on nine carries versus the Bucs, while Thomas (269 rushing yards, 2 TD) is second behind Ivory in rushing yards but is considered questionable due to an ankle injury.
Not known for having a stout defense, which was a problem area during the team’s stretch of seven losses over the last 10 games of the regular season, the Seahawks did enough to defeat the Rams by holding them to 184 total yards. Defensive end Raheem Brock (32 tackles, 9 sacks) recorded 2 1/2 sacks on Rams rookie Sam Bradford, while Chris Clemons (49 tackles) led the Seahawks in that category with a career-high 11 for the season. Safety Jordan Babineaux (46 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) had two of the team’s seven pass breakups this past weekend, while outside linebacker Will Herring (36 tackles, 1 sack) had the lone interception of Bradford — the first of his career. The Seahawks not only took Bradford’s targets out of the picture, but also held Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson to 45 rushing yards and the Rams to 47 total on the ground. Seattle is 21st against the rush and has a solid corps of linebackers led by Lofa Tatupu (88 tackles, 1 sack) in the middle. Outside linebacker Aaron Curry (73 tackles, 4 sacks) has established himself as one of the best and quickest linebackers in the league, but had no tackles against the Rams. That should change this week with Bush and a possibly Thomas coming out of the flats. Veteran safety Lawyer Milloy (88 tackles) is grateful for having a chance to be back in the playoffs and finished tied with Curry for second on the team with four sacks. Rookie safety Earl Thomas (75 tackles) had one of two interceptions of Brees in the first meeting with New Orleans.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Hasselbeck (3,001 passing yards, 12 TD, 17 INT) seemed to have no trouble moving the football against the Saints last November. If the long-time starter does get the nod over Whitehurst, the Saints must be cautious of his smarts and experience. Hasselbeck has the ability to improvise when the play breaks down and tried convincing Carroll to play against the Rams. The head coach opted for Whitehurst (507 passing yards, 2 TD, 3 INT), who had trouble getting the offense to find success on third down, as the Seahawks converted 4-of-15 tries in those situations against the Rams. St. Louis was no better, however, managing a 2-for-14 clip. The Seahawks finished 19th in passing during the regular season and got a breakout performance from wideout Mike Williams (65 reception, 2 TD). Prior to the season, Williams was signed to a one-year contract despite having been out of the league the past two seasons, and worked his way to starting status while a three-year contract extension after leading the Seahawks in catches and receiving yards (751) and hauling in Whitehurst’s only touchdown pass last Sunday. Ben Obomanu (30 receptions) finished tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches with four and racked up a game-high five receptions for 39 yards against St. Louis. Wide receiver Ruvell Martin (7 receptions, 1 TD) even got into the act with a game-best 85 yards on three receptions. Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett have anchored Seattle’s 31st rushing attack.
The Saints were dead last this season with just nine interceptions, with safety Malcolm Jenkins (64 tackles, 1 sack) and corner Jabari Greer (61 tackles) leading the way with two apiece. New Orleans has the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL and is second against the pass, however. Seattle will try to get the ball to Williams as often as possible and the former first-round pick wants to prove his new contract was deserving. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman threw for 255 yards and two scores against a New Orleans defense that registered four pass breakups last week, while Hasselbeck was able to throw for 366 yards in the first meeting with the Saints, who only allowed one touchdown pass with no interceptions that day. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will dial up the blitz in his relentless play-calling style, possibly going with a few corner attacks or with Jenkins or fellow safety Roman Harper (98 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT). New Orleans had no sacks in the first meeting with the Seahawks, but if Carroll goes with a banged-up Hasselbeck with limited mobility in this one, the defense certainly has a chance to improve on that total. Defensive end Will Smith (39 tackles, 6 sacks) has recorded a sack in each of the last two games, while counterpart Alex Brown (39 tackles, 2 sacks) recorded just his second of the season versus Tampa. Tackle Sedrick Ellis (44 tackles, 6 sacks) is tied with Smith for the team lead in sacks. Saints linebacker and leading tackler Jonathan Vilma (105 tackles, 4 sacks) was just added to the NFC Pro Bowl roster on Tuesday.
Courtney Roby was the Saints’ primary kickoff returner for much of this season, averaging 23.8 yards on 33 tries, but was placed on injured reserve prior to the Tampa Bay game. Devery Henderson took over those duties last week and will be trying to set up Brees and the offense in good territory. Bush and Moore had 14 and 11 punt returns, respectively, this season. Bush missed several weeks dealing with a broken leg and returned one punt for seven yards last week. Kicker Garrett Hartley bounced back from an ugly start to finish with an 81.4 percent field goal percentage. He made 6-of-7 tries between 40-to-49 yards. Thomas Morstead is the team’s punter and averaged 45.9 yards on 57 attempts.
Leon Washington is Seattle’s main return man on both kickoffs and punts. He had 57 returns for 1,461 yards this season, averaging 25.6 yards per try. On 22 punt returns, Washington tallied 249 yards for an average of 11.3 per runback, and Carroll will be hoping the Saints don’t decide to kick away from one of his best weapons. Rookie wide receiver Golden Tate has experience returning kicks too. Kicker Olindo Mare had an up-and-down campaign in the Emerald City this season, making 79.5 percent of his field goal attempts. Punter Jon Ryan averaged 41.7 yards on 78 punts for the year.
The Saints are aware they could be headed for a trap, since they’re so heavily favored to dominate this postseason showdown with the Seahawks. The defending champions proved they can win on the road during the regular season, but must get that first playoff road victory out of the way. Who else besides Brees would New Orleans want under center to achieve that feat? A strong effort from the running backs will take the pressure off of Brees in a decisive triumph at Qwest Field, where opponents tend to struggle because of the noise. The Saints will turn that boisterousness into a Mardi Gras remix.