Back in Week 13, the New Orleans Saints made the trip to CenturyLink Field to take on the Seattle Seahawks on “Monday Night Football.” As the two teams owned the two best records in the NFC at the time, it initially appeared to be a game of the year candidate.
The Seahawks quickly put that idea to rest, jumping all over the Saints early before coasting to a 34-7 victory. Just over a month later, the two teams learned they will be meeting again in Seattle in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Nobody is expecting a blowout of that magnitude again, but the Seahawks currently stand as a 7.5 point favorite over New Orleans. Here’s a look at five areas of the game Seattle must replicate its success in to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
1. Linebacker play
A big key to beating New Orleans is having strong play from the linebacker position. Led by Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham, the Saints have enough weapons in the short and intermediate passing game to pick defenses apart if the opposing linebackers aren’t up to the challenge. That was a big part of the Seahawks’ victory in December, as K.J. Wright drew the assignment on Graham and held him to 3 catches.
Wright has since been injured and replaced by Malcolm Smith. Smith is a fine player, and the Seahawks still have one of the best linebacker groups in the NFL. But as Smith is four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Wright, the question becomes how Seattle will deal with Graham this time around.
2. Consistency from the offensive line
The Seahawks’ offensive line has had its share of struggles this year, but played a strong game against the Saints the first time around. Seattle only gave up one sack to a New Orleans defense that generated 49 during the regular season, fourth-most in the NFL. Since, the offensive line has again been inconsistent, something the Seahawks can’t afford against Cameron Jordan and company on Saturday.
3. Good decision making from Russell Wilson
The Saints had a tough time generating pressure with four pass rushers in December, so they sent a few blitzes at Wilson early in the game. Wilson proceeded to shred Rob Ryan’s defense seemingly every time it sent an extra man with quick, sharp decisions. Overall, Wilson had his best game of the season, completing 22 of 30 passes for 310 yards and 3 touchdowns.
In the four games since, Wilson has thrown three interceptions, two coming due to uncharacteristically bad decisions. He has also been less of a factor rushing than earlier in the season, particularly in the Week 16 game against the Arizona Cardinals where he had a few opportunities to run for big gains but chose to throw. Wilson rebounded from his worst game as a pro against Arizona with a solid performance against the St. Louis Rams the next week, but the Seahawks will need him to be even better on Saturday.
4. Strike early
Just look at the first five drives in the previous meeting: New Orleans three-and-out, Seattle field goal, Seattle defensive touchdown, New Orleans three-and-out and Seattle touchdown. By the end of that stretch, the Seahawks were up 17-0 without even one quarter gone and CenturyLink Field was in a frenzy. That placed a lot of pressure on a Saints team that has questions about its performance away from home.
Of course, the Saints did rally from a late deficit on the road just last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, but Seattle is a tougher environment. An early touchdown or turnover would make a big difference for the Seahawks.
5. Eliminate the run
The Saints will always be a pass-first team as long as Drew Brees is around, but stopping the run will still be important on Saturday. Due to a combination of the Seahawks’ defense and the large early deficit, New Orleans only rushed for 44 yards on 17 carries back in December. With a defense as disruptive as the Seattle’s, opposing teams cannot afford to be so one-dimensional.
Against the Eagles, New Orleans’ run game made a difference. The Saints racked up 185 yards on the ground on over 5 yards per carry, including some meaningful runs late in the game by Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. Ensuring the Saints don’t even have the threat of running will help the Seahawks to focus on a passing attack that has enough weapons to worry about already.
Photo Credit: Elaine Thompson / Associated Press
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