To get a feel for Saturday’s Divisional playoff matchup between the Seattle Seahawks (13-3) and the New Orleans Saints (12-5), we have to understand the past. We can look back to the only playoff matchup between the franchises, a 41-36 Seattle win on Jan. 8, 2011. This was the game that introduced us to Beast Mode as Marshawn Lynch helped clinch the upset with a pinball-like 67-yard touchdown run. Earlier this season, the Seahawks hosted the Saints on Monday Night Football. The Saints were no match, getting pasted 34-7, their last single-digit performance since 2008.
Both games show off one important factor about Saturday’s game. The Seahawks are tough to beat at home even with their 2010 -97 point differential. The problem is their 2013 version has a +186 point differential. This year’s Seattle football club gets that home-field insanity, along with the added detail that they are quite good at playing football.
In Mike Tanier’s weekly Sports on Earth matchup column about, he points out that the 2013 Seahawks rank 5th in DVOA, a Football Outsiders stat that measures how each play a team runs stacks up to other squads. That’s fifth in the past 20 years. Let’s look at each team’s offense and defense:
Russell Wilson’s crew is 8th in the NFL in scoring. That may not be as impressive as the defense’s 1st ranking in points allowed. The key is there’s almost a 12-point differential between the two. Wilson has 26 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons and a 52/19 TD/interception ratio in 32 starts. He also averages more than 500 rushing yards per year with five TDs on the ground. While it is factually correct to point out that he has three of those five touchdowns in one game against the Bills last year, he’s still capable of running the ball.
I went an entire paragraph without mentioning Marshawn Lynch. Do I get a trophy? Seattle traded a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 to get Lynch and I’d say it’s money well spent. The man who calls himself MoneyLynch on Twitter led the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns. As Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar pointed out, he’s averaging a paltry 3.6 yards per rush in December, so there is concern.
Percy Harvin is practicing. What you hear is the cry of thousands of fantasy owners who stashed Harvin hoping for a late-season comeback. Harvin may or may not play this week, emphasis on the may not, so it’s up to the receivers who led the way all year to step up. Golden Tate leads the teams with four catches a game and five TDs. Doug Baldwin will play the Harvin role if the “probable” becomes the “out”. After being mainly a high-priced blocker, Zach Miller’s stepped up lately at the TE spot. He has five touchdowns on the year, which we all know is half of ten.
The offensive line is the weak spot on the team. Wilson does scramble well and is disciplined enough to keep his eyes downfield while doing so. The tireless Russell Baxter of Cold Hard Football Facts reminds us that Wilson has been sacked 44 times this year. If the blocking for Lynch isn’t up to snuff, the play-action pass will be less effective.
Did I mention that they are good? They are quite good. Because Russell Wilson wasn’t your average QB on a rookie deal, the Seahawks were able to load up on relatively cheap free-agent defensive linemen. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett stay fresh and rotate in with starters Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. The only issue is that the pass-rush happy group can be gashed on the ground. In losses to the 49ers and Cardinals in the past four weeks, the defense gave up more than 300 combined rushing yards.
After serving a four-game suspension, Bruce Irvin moved back into his Swiss Army knife role as outside linebacker and defensive end. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner tackles everything in his path.
Then there’s the secondary. Did I not mention that the Seahawks average almost 2.5 turnovers generated per game? The secondary’s a main reason for this. The unit is a little short of full strength with Brandon Browner suspended, but Richard Sherman’s going to erase whoever the Saints send his way. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are decent, if by decent you mean all-world talents.
Remember that factoid about Seattle not handling NFC West run games well of late? The Saints had a very un-Saintlike offensive game script to help defeat the Philadelphia Eagles. They ran the ball 36 times for 185 yards, and that was without 2013 rushing leader Pierre Thomas. Mark Ingram, former Heisman winner and former cursed fantasy football asset, had nearly 100 rushing yards, 21 total touches, and a touchdown last week. The Saints will have to lean on him again, along with rookie free agent Khiry Robinson (who scouts UDFA RBs for the Saints?) and Darren Sproles.
I mention Drew Brees second, not because he’s anything but the center of the franchise but due to his two interceptions last week. He wasn’t sharp, but he did run a mean QB sneak last week, doing it twice in the game-winning field goal drive. Let’s get one thing straight at the moment. If Shayne Graham gets on the field for anything besides extra-point attempts, that’s bad. Brees did hit nine different receivers last week, and it’s hard to key on anyone not named Jimmy Graham.
Graham’s hurt. We all know this. He’s still averaged a TD a game. I put the odds at slightly higher than 50/50 that he dunks in Seattle this weekend. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell who will be the top receiver this weekend. The key is the Saints don’t have a designated #1 wideout, and I doubt that the Seahawks put Richard Sherman on Graham.
The Saints’ offensive line has a major challenge on their hands. They did surrender only two sacks in last week’s game. Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead will be challenged all day. The Saints’ strength is in the interior OL, so expect pressure to come from the edges and the run game will be a huge part of the game plan.
The camera, it sure likes Rob Ryan’s hair. While the Seahawks struggle against the pass rush, the Saints give quarterbacks time to scan the field, if not complete an easy Sudoku puzzle before tossing the rock. The Saints only managed two sacks against lead-legged Nick Foles in the Wild Card round. The good news is the defense held LeSean McCoy to under 4 yards a carry after giving up 4.6 yards per tote during the regular season.
Curtis Lofton, team leader in tackles, may spy Wilson. Former defensive end Junior Galette has taken to the rush OLB spot well, with 12 sacks on the season. The defense tries to funnel everything inside to Lofton and fellow inside linebacker David Hawthorne, a former Seattle player.
The secondary could be a problem. Defensive rookie of the year candidate Kenny Vaccaro is out, as is ten-game starter Jabari Greer. Keenan Lewis is still questionable after suffering a concussion last week. He should play on Saturday. After he left last Saturday’s game, the defense started giving up passing yards by the bushel.
The Saints proved a lot last week in a gutsy road win on the final play of the game. In Seattle, there is no room for error. The Seahawks will be on a mission after falling painfully short in Atlanta last year. The one time this franchise had home-field advantage in the playoffs, they went to the Super Bowl. Facing off against a 12-win 6th seed may not be their preference, but they have the manpower to prevail and should send the Saints marching home for the offseason.
Zach Law is a zero-time award winner who can be found on Zach Law Online and on Twitter.