NFL Playoff Preview: New Orleans-Seattle

The second round of the NFL playoffs starts late Saturday afternoon when the New Orleans Saints visit the Seattle Seahawks (4:35 PM ET, Fox). Here’s our Notebook Nine points of preparation for the New Orleans-Seattle game…

    • *New Orleans first had to overcome their own history of never winning a road playoff game in last week’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Now the Saints have to beat a Seattle team that has never lost a home playoff game since moving outdoors (the Seahawks lost in the old Kingdome once, back in 1999). This history includes a 41-36 upset of New Orleans back in 2010, when the Seahawks were a 7-9 division champ and the worst team in NFL history to make the postseason.
    • *Between this history, and Seattle’s 34-7 thumping of New Orleans in this same venue on the first Monday of December, the oddsmakers have no doubt where this one is going. The Seahawks are an eight-point favorite. The Over/Under is 45.5, so let’s combine those and come up with projected final score of 27-19 for Seattle.
    • *The Over/Under indicates a lack of respect for the Saints’ offense, combined with weather likely being a factor. Can Drew Brees take care of the football? Brees threw 12 interceptions this year, and while it would be an overstatement to call him a turnover machine (that’s reserved for Andy Dalton, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco), interceptions are what keeps Brees from being in the true elite of NFL quarterbacks (Brady, Peyton and Rodgers). Seattle is the NFL’s best at forcing takeaways.

    • *One way for New Orleans to contain the turnovers and reduce the pressure on Brees would be to run the ball. Sean Payton broke character and muscled up last Saturday night in Philly and Mark Ingram ran for 97 yards, in what is easily the biggest performance of the former Heisman Trophy winner’s pro career. The Saints finished 26th in the league during the season in rush average, but we see every year in the playoffs how current form matters more than anything. Let’s see if the head coach feeds Ingram again.
    • *By running the ball, the Saints did not employ tight end Jimmy Graham as much. Graham has no peer as a pass-catcing tight end, save for maybe New England’s Rob Gronkowsi on the rare occasions Gronk is healthy. What Graham doesn’t do is block well, and Payton often went to two-TE sets that did not include Graham. It’s a tough trade off to make, but Payton may not have a choice if he wants to keep the heat off Brees.
    • *A great battle looms on the outside, with Seattle corner Richard Sherman going up against New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston. We can talk strategy all we want, but if Sherman can lock down Colston man-on-man, it’s tough to see any gambit by New Orleans working. Colston has to get himself open and make a couple big plays down the field, or at the very least, force safety help that might free up someone else.
    • *Teams that win in the playoffs usually find someone who can play beyond their regular season stats. With Seattle, the person to keep an eye on is defensive end Chris Clemons. He had a meager 4 ½ sacks this year, but we know he’s much better than that. Here’s another case of a player who can shred a gameplan if he can wreck the pocket, or at least force extra attention on himself.

  • *Offensively, Seattle has the image of a team that muscles up with Marshawn Lynch and plays percentage football in the passing game with Russell Wilson. Don’t overlook that Seattle is one of the best in the NFL at yards-per-pass, and now they’re going to have Percy Harvin available on Saturday. New Orleans can’t give up the big play and to that end, corner Keenan Lewis is going to have to deliver. Lewis locked down DeSean Jackson in the first round before a head injury and the league’s concussion protocol kept him in the latter stages of the game. Lewis is healthy and needs another big performance.
  • *Seattle’s biggest Achilles heel has been pass protection, as they rank 20th in sacks allowed in spite of having a mobile quarterback. New Orleans has two players who can get pressure, outside linebacker Junior Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan, who line up on opposite sides of the ball. We know defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will bring the heat. How much can Wilson’s mobility and the need to respect Lynch’s muscular running between the tackles slow the Saints’ pass rush?

I’m not ready to buck history and pick an upset here, so I’m taking Seattle. If I were at a Las Vegas sportsbook I probably wouldn’t bet the game, because the (-7) seems like a lot, although it has been pointed out that the Seahawks are an “avalanche” type of team, especially at home. I respect what New Orleans has done this year in winning 11 games and then taking a road playoff game, but this is too big a hill to climb.