It’s no surprise that the World Champion New Orleans Saints are back for a chance to repeat as Super Bowl titlists. However, on the polar opposite end of the spectrum, it’s a shock to the senses seeing a 7-9 team in the Seattle Seahawks not only make the post-season, but win their division. After losing their previous three games by a combined total of 58 points, the Seahawks won their finale over the St. Louis Rams to shove them off the perch, en route to claiming the NFC West under rather dubious circumstances. Head coach Pete Carroll makes no apologies or excuses for the manner in which his team claimed the division crown, and is putting the bizarre story behind the team as they prepare to host last year’s champions in the opening game of the Wild Card round. To many fans, however, the outcome is nowhere near in doubt.
On November 21, the Saints came off of their bye week to beat Seattle 34-19. In the game, Drew Brees threw for 382 yards and four scores; two of which went to Marques Colston (113 yards on 8 catches). Brees found ten different receivers on 29 completions, while Chris Ivory ran for 99 yards on 23 carries, with a touchdown. Seattle stalled mightily; despite garbage-time gains for Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu, the running game was Seattle’s downfall: Marshawn Lynch only had 7 carries (albeit for 36 yards), but Justin Forsett had a paltry 10 yards on 8 carries (longest run: 9 yards, which means there were a few offensive line woes). Seattle, however, was able to claim a pair of interceptions off of Brees, whose consistency has declined in the Super Bowl hangover year. The Saints surged toward a playoff berth with the win, while Seattle spun its wheels.
2. Can the Seahawks actually win this game?
The adage goes “On any given Sunday, any team can beat any team”. There’s enough reason to believe that Seattle has a puncher’s chance to knock off the champions. Of Seattle’s seven wins this year, 3 of them can be considered impressive. In week three, the Seahawks stunned a promising San Diego Chargers team (who struggled out of the gate this year) 27-20. In week six, coming off of a bye, Seattle upset the eventual second seed Chicago Bears 23-20 on the road. And, of course, their most important victory came this past Sunday night, when Seattle stifled quarterback Sam Bradford (who was also stifled by his butter-fingered wide receivers) to lay claim to the fourth seed. Meanwhile, the Saints somehow lost to both Arizona (30-20) and Cleveland (30-17). The Saints may have ripped off ten straight wins after the Cleveland failure, but the champs aren’t exactly coated in Teflon.
3. Who should play the Saints: Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Hasselbeck?
One would think Carroll would stick Whitehurst out there this Saturday. After all, he handled himself well in a pressure situation against the Rams (you lose, you’re out), and Whitehurst has to be feeling made of granite after the clutch win. On the other hand, Whitehurst does not possess impressive stats this season (57.6%, 2 TD in six games to 3 INT, 65.5 rating). Hasselbeck is, at least, experienced in the playoffs. The knock on Hasselbeck would be those injuries that have plagued him over the last several seasons, including the hip/glute injury that was the cause of Whitehurst starting Sunday. Hasselbeck will apparently not be limited in practice, according to Carroll, so it looks as if the decision on the starter won’t be made until later in the week. Despite Whitehurst’s shaky season and lack of experience, Pete Carroll could do worse than ride the hot hand this week.
4. How have the Saints regressed from one year ago?
There weren’t many roster changes to indicate a decline. Other than the Eagles claiming Mike Bell as a restricted free agent, Scott Fujita and Charles Grant leaving, and Mark Simoneau retiring, the Saints looked largely the same. They even added havoc-wreaking defensive end Alex Brown to the fold. However, some of the changes took a toll on the side of health. Darren Sharper would miss the first six games due to being on the PUP list. Reggie Bush missed two months with a broken bone in his leg, sustained in week two. Pierre Thomas ran afoul of Sean Payton and found himself benched for a spell. A rocky start for the Saints saw them go 4-3 following a strange loss to Cleveland. As mentioned earlier, the Saints had six straight wins after that to go 10-3, but being a champion makes you vulnerable, as every team studies your playing model.
5. Is Marques Colston’s knee going to be an issue?
Colston repeated a procedure a week ago that he had done this past July: an arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies around his right knee. Reports ranged anywhere from Colston being active for the season finale against Tampa Bay to possibly missing early playoff action. Colston matched the Saints’ slow start to the season as he had to play himself back into peak condition. In this scenario, the man who secured 84 catches for 1022 yards and seven touchdowns may have to miraculously come back from the procedure after two weeks, as opposed to two months the first time. If nothing else, Drew Brees has been a whiz at spreading the ball around (10 different receivers with 20 or more catches this season, a first in NFL history), but losing Colston, a tight end in a wide receiver’s body, is one less thing for Seattle’s shaky defense to worry about.
6. What is there to make of the Carroll-Bush connection?
Yes, Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker meet in NFL post-season action. You may recall the 2003 and 2004 BCS Champion USC Trojans having the these two as the coach and the hot property running back. ESPN has already alluded to the connection, but guess what? Other than coming together to claim two national titles, the two men really have nothing to do with each other. Carroll’s a defensive-minded coach, and is more apt to take credit for the success of Clay Matthews III or Lofa Tatupu than he is Bush. Perhaps the only thing one can really draw from this is Carroll having a slight edge. Carroll’s overseen many practices where his USC defense has had to be prepared to stop the run, and Reggie Bush was a guinea pig. Carroll at least knows Bush’s tendencies, but given Seattle’s anemic defense this season (21st against the run), it might not even matter.
7. How is Seattle’s defense going to stop Drew Brees?
Forget Reggie Bush for a second. As a defense, Seattle allowed 3,994 yards this season. Drew Brees himself put up 4,620 yards in 2010, and given that Brees runs his offense like a caring philanthropist (passes for everybody, passes often), Seattle’s going to have a tough time corralling the last Super Bowl MVP. Seattle’s best asset is a furious pass rush, built on veterans like Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock beating the blockers around the end. The safety combination of Lawyer Milloy and Jordan Babineaux have accounted for 5.5 sacks alone, indicating Carroll’s fancy for a frenzied safety blitz. And this is where it gets difficult: if Seattle’s defense doesn’t run full blast at Brees to try and disrupt his rhythm, Brees may have all day to throw. But if the safeties do blitz early and often, Brees will have plenty of open targets, as per his preference of play.
Brees went from 34 touchdowns a year ago to 33 in 2010. Means nothing, really, but then you see his interception total actually doubled, going from 11 to 22 this year. The 22 interceptions in question are the highest total of his entire career (topping his 18 in 2007), and spells an interesting question for the Saints. Fortunately, Seattle’s known for their weak secondary, and aren’t the best poachers in the game. Rookie defensive back Earl Thomas has five picks on the year, and that’s nearly half of the team’s total (12). However, it should be noted that Brees has thrown FAR more passes this year (658) than last year (514). One could attribute this to the running game being in flux throughout the entire season, with Reggie Bush’s injuries, Pierre Thomas’ punishment, Chris Ivory settling in. I sense that Brees should feel comfortable with balanced offense in this game.
9. Where will Seattle’s defense need to do the most damage?
When you consider the previous two paragraphs, you realize that Seattle’s more likely to succeed with a chaotic, unpredictable defense than they are playing conservative man-to-man coverage. For as many points as Seattle gives up (25.4 points a game), they will unleash a barrage of pass rushers to try and compensate. While one may think Drew Brees would be too seasoned and collected to be rattled by what Carroll and defensive coordinator Casey Bradley launch at him, Brees can only succeed against the rush if he sees patterns. Familiarity is the antithesis of what Seattle must bring. Walter Thurmond, Kelly Jennings, and Marcus Trufant are far from the best cover corners in the league and, if Brees has time to throw, he’s completing those passes. I mean, we’re talking about a 7-9 team that got in by being in a lousy division. While Seattle’s here, why not make things interesting?
10. Seattle’s running game vs. New Orleans’ run defense: who wins?
The Saints give up 112.3 yards a game on the ground, good for 16th best in the league. Interestingly enough, the Saints have the fourth best pass defense in the NFL, and it’s the run defense that stains the squad’s defensive rep. On the other side of the ball, Seattle has struggled running the ball, gaining only 89 yards a game (second worst in the NFL). Neither of their running backs (Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett) has more than 600 yards this season. Lynch is getting only 3.5 yards a carry, and neither quarterback is averaging more than 2.6 yards a rush. Despite having the 16th best offensive line for run blocking in the NFL, Seattle’s rushing offense is among the league’s worst. Against a spotty Saints run defense, there’s potential for “push comes to shove” and one side winning out. Somebody must take advantage of the other ‘s weakness.
On paper, New Orleans is too high-powered for Seattle to match up against. After all, the Saints would have won almost any NFC division if Atlanta were in the AFC. Seattle was going to be in trouble no matter who they faced, and they realize how lucky they are to still be alive here in January. All signs point to Seattle being the first to exit, but it’s not guaranteed to happen. The Saints have been upset a few times this year, and Seattle’s gotten their share of upsets themselves. Realistically, Drew Brees is fixing to have a field day with his spread offense and his variety of receivers. In the numbers game, there’s too many Saints weapons for Seattle’s hampered defense to properly stifle. While it may be cool to set yourself apart from the mob and pick the underdog, I’m afraid there’s little chance of being right here.
SCORE: Saints 38, Seahawks 17
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