NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-9) 1:30 p.m. today, Qwest Field, Ch. 5, 1240-AM, 1030-AM, 97.3-FM
The Series: The Saints hold a 6-5 advantage, and this is the first playoff game between the teams. The Saints are 0-3 on the road in the postseason, while the Seahawks are 4-1 at home since Qwest Field opened in 2002, including winning the last four.
The Coaches: New Orleans coach Sean Payton is 49-31 in five seasons (4-1 in the playoffs) with the Saints. His teams have made two playoff appearances, including winning the Super Bowl last year. Seattle’s Pete Carroll has a 40-40 record in four seasons in the NFL, including a 7-9 mark this season as the Seahawks’ coach. This is his third playoff appearance, having made the playoffs twice in New England (1997-98). He has a 1-2 record in the postseason.
Last game: The Saints defeated Seattle, 34-19, in New Orleans on Nov. 21. Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and New Orleans finished with 494 yards of total offense.
Injury report: For Seattle – The Seahawks have no one listed on the injury report. For New Orleans – LB Danny Clark, TE Jimmy Graham, DT Anthony Hargrove, and S Malcolm Jenkins – all starters – have been ruled out. DE Alex Brown, WR Marques Colston, TE Jeremy Shockey, TE David Thomas and LB Anthony Waters are probable.
THE MATCHUPS THE EDGE
Matt Hasselbeck struggled for a second straight season, throwing for 3,001 yards, 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 14 games. But he has been to the postseason before (4-5 record), and has the most playoff starts of any quarterback in the NFC. Drew Brees directs one of the more prolific offenses in the league, finishing with 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns, both NFC bests. Brees led the league by completing 68.1 percent of his passes this season, but he also threw 22 interceptions – second in the league to the N.Y. Giants’ Eli Manning. Brees’ 66.7 completion percentage in the postseason is best in NFL history, and his 103.7 passer rating is second highest.
With the Saints’ two workhorses – Chris Ivory (foot) and Pierre Thomas (ankle) – done for the year, New Orleans will rely on a steady diet of Julius Jones and Reggie Bush. We all know the amazing talent Bush possesses, but he’s not an every-down back, and the duo combined for just 343 yards this season. While Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington lack pizzazz, they have gotten the job done when the holes are there (a combined 1,196 rushing yards this year).
Marques Colston finished with his second straight 1,000-yard season (84 receptions, 1,023 yards and 7 TDs), but he’s not alone. Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson all can make plays. The Seahawks counter with Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu, and tight end John Carlson hopes to get more involved in the offense now that Seattle’s pass protection up front has improved.
The Saints have two Pro Bowl guards in Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. New Orleans has allowed just 26 sacks this season, fifth-best in the league. And the Saints average 4.0 yards a carry on the ground. The Seahawks have used 10 different offensive-line combinations and still lack cohesion up front, although hobbled rookie offensive tackle Russell Okung, the key to Seattle’s success up front, has played better of late.
The Saints have 33 sacks on the season, with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis leading the team with six. New Orleans also has been somewhat susceptible against the run, giving up 112 yards per game. The Seahawks have 37 sacks, led by Chris Clemons (11) and Raheem Brock (9). Seattle has struggled against the run, giving up an average of 119 yards per game.
Jonathan Vilma, one of the smartest players in the game, leads the Saints in tackles with 106, and Scott Shanle is underrated at his position. Linebacker is the strength of the defense for Seattle, with Lofa Tatupu providing stability inside, Aaron Curry playing solid against the run, and David Hawthorne again serving as a tackling machine – he reached 100 tackles for a second straight season (104 total, 74 solo). One area where Seattle’s LBs could struggle is keeping up with the Saints’ athletic tight ends and Bush in the underneath routes in the passing game.
New Orleans has one of the better pass defenses, only giving up an average of 193 yards a game. However, Hasselbeck had a season-high 366 yards against the Saints in November. Seattle’s secondary will lean on safety Lawyer Milloy, who will play in 11th career playoff game. But they’ll have to play much better in the back end, particularly Earl Thomas and corners Kelly Jennings and Marcus Trufant. The Seahawks have given up 31 passing touchdowns, tied for third-worst in the league.
Seattle’s Leon Washington is an explosive returner, punter Jon Ryan has done a nice job of placing the ball inside the 20-yard line, and kicker Olindo Mare is one of the leaders in touchbacks, helping Seattle control field position. New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley has been inconsistent, and the Saints’ kick coverage unit is in the bottom third of the league.
Carroll has done a nice job with Seattle in his first season back in the NFL, somehow getting the Seahawks back into the playoffs after a two-year absence. However, Payton is at the top of his game, coming off a Super Bowl run last year. Payton will be tested because the road to a repeat does not go through the Superdome.
The Pick: SAINTS, 24-17
The Saints are the prohibitive favorites, but expect the Seahawks to keep the game close, especially if they can get off to a good start. The weather, New Orleans traveling 2,100 miles and the Saints’ injuries will all play a factor.