As soon as Shayne Graham’s field-goal kick knifed through the uprights Saturday night, sending the New Orleans Saints to Seattle for a playoff game against the Seahawks, Pete Carroll and his staff began a comprehensive review of the last time the Saints came marching into CenturyLink Field.
Consulting an information bank organized with the meticulous precision of a rocket launch, Carroll’s thumbnail analysis of the Seahawks’ 34-7 victory on Dec. 2 probably looked like this:
What went right? Everything.
What went wrong? Nothing.
It’s not likely the Seahawks can play any better than they did five weeks ago, nor is it likely the Saints can play any worse. In other words, come Saturday afternoon, expect something more in line with an actual football game than a reprise of a rope-a-dope pummeling.
You’d think the Seahawks would have no qualms about drawing the Saints, who were as overmatched on the stat sheet as they were on the scoreboard. Name a category, and the Hawks owned a virtual times-two or times-three advantage.
First downs? Seattle 23, New Orleans 12.
Rushing yards? Seattle 127, New Orleans 44.
Total net yards? Seattle 429, New Orleans 188.
If the Seahawks produce even a semblance of those numbers Saturday, they’ll be on a collision course with either the Panthers or the 49ers in the NFC championship game.
But here’s the rub: It’s a challenge to beat an opponent twice in five weeks, much less an opponent whose coach is as savvy as Sean Payton.
While Carroll’s task will be to convince his team that a 27-point victory in December translates into ancient history in January, Payton will use the humiliation as motivation.
An athlete of NFL caliber shouldn’t need motivation for a playoff game, to be sure, but pride is a substantial intangible. From the moment Hawks’ defensive tackle Brendan Mebane stopped Pierre Thomas for a 4-yard loss on New Orleans’ first play, the visitors had their noses rubbed in the stuff of a barnyard mess.
The Seahawks would be wise to forget how thoroughly they dominated that night.
The Saints can’t.
What Payton’s team has put behind is some history of futility. Before the Saints’ comeback victory against the Eagles on Saturday night, the franchise was 0-5 in road playoff games. While weather conditions in not-always-sunny Philadelphia weren’t particularly brutal, the environment was.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw two interceptions, and New Orleans was minus- two in the turnover ratio – a crucial, all-important category during the playoffs, unless it isn’t – but the Saints cobbled together a late scoring drive that concluded with Graham’s last-second field goal.
Oddsmakers have installed the Seahawks as 8½-point favorites, an increase of the 4½-point spread set when 10-1 Seattle and 9-2 New Orleans clashed in that Monday Night Football battle of the heavyweights.
But remember: In 1990, the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants lost at San Francisco, 7-3, in a Monday night game packed with similar anticipation.
The Giants came back to Candlestick Park for the playoff rematch without starting quarterback Phil Simms, who’d suffered a season-ending foot injury.
The Giants were unable to score a touchdown. They won anyway, 15-13.
And while 1940 was so long ago in football years that it’s irrelevant, I still find this fascinating: On Nov. 17, the Chicago Bears lost a road game to the Redskins, 7-3. Three weeks later, in the NFL championship game, the Bears returned to Griffith Stadium and beat the ’Skins by an almost similar score.
“Nobody knows anything,” broadcaster Al Michaels said after watching the Saints advance to the second round of the 2013 playoffs.
Not true, Al.
We know the Seahawks and Saints faced each other in Seattle on Dec. 2. We know the Hawks took names and kicked butts and put on a show so one-sided it was over by halftime.
We know that.
What’s scary is, so does Sean Payton.