Five matchups to watch: Seahawks vs. Saints

Posted Jan 10, 2014

For only the second time in franchise history, the Seahawks are hosting a divisional playoff game. It happens Saturday, when the New Orleans Saints come to CenturyLink Field.

A look at the Seahawks’ divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, including five matchups that could impact the outcome:

When: Saturday, 1:35 p.m., CenturyLink Field

Records: Seahawks were 13-3 during the regular season to win the NFC West and clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the postseason; Saints were 11-5 to finish second to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South and wrap up the No. 6 seed. The Saints beat the NFC East Champion Eagles in their wild-card playoff game in Philadelphia last Saturday night.

Playoff implications: The winner of Saturday’s game will advance to the NFC Championship game next Sunday against the winner of this Sunday’s divisional game between the No. 5 seed 49ers and No. 2 seed Panthers in Carolina.

TV: FOX (Q13), with Kevin Burkhart, John Lynch and Erin Andrews

Radio: 710 ESPN and 97.3 KIRO FM, with Steve Raible, Warren Moon and Jen Mueller

Matchup microscope

The Saints’ No. 4-ranked defense vs. Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch: When the Saints came marching into CenturyLink Field in Week 13, the focus of first-year coordinator Rob Ryan and his unit was not allowing Lynch to go Beast Mode on them. It was totally understandable, after Lynch’s electrifying 67-yard touchdown run in the 2010 wild-card game between the teams iced the Seahawks’ 41-36 upset and capped Lynch’s 131-yard afternoon. It also was totally effective, as the Saints limited Lynch to a 2.8-yard average on 16 carries (45 yards) by loading the box with extra defenders on 23 plays, their fifth-highest total of the season. Lynch has not had a 100-yard rushing performance in the past six games, matching his longest drought since the first six games of the 2011 season. In between, Lynch had 19 100-yard games, but the Seahawks were only 12-7 in those games. The Saints, meanwhile, held the Eagles’ LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL with 1,607 yards during the regular season, to 77 yards on 21 carries in last week’s wild-card playoff game. 

One to watch

Third downs: In their Week 13 win over the Saints at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks converted seven of 14 third-down situations, ran 69 offensive plays and won in a romp 34-7 to push their record to 11-1. Since then, however, the Seahawks have converted 14 of 51 third-down situations, or 27 percent, while going 2-2. In those losses, they ran 50 plays against the 49ers in San Francisco and 51 plays against the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field. Yes, the 49ers and Cardinals have Top 10 defenses. But the Saints have made the greatest one-season turnaround in NFL history, going from allowing a league-record average of 440.1 yards per game last season to 305.7 this season. That allowed the Saints to rank No. 4, and their 134.4-yard difference is the largest about-face in the 94-season history of the league.

Fun to watch

Percy Harvin: Now that we know the big-play receiver/returner/runner will play for the Seahawks, the question of when he would play again that has been asked for the past eight weeks has shifted to: What will Harvin do for an encore now that he is going to play again? In his only appearance this season, Harvin returned a kickoff 58 yards and also had a falling catch of a 17-yard pass in the Week 11 win over the Vikings, the team that traded Harvin to the Seahawks in March. But he had hip surgery on Aug. 1, which delayed his debut; and the recovery from that debut has taken him to this point.

One tough task

The Seahawks’ No. 2-ranked defense vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham: In the “Monday Night Football” game against the Saints on Dec. 2, the Seahawks used the length and athletic ability of linebacker K.J. Wright to limit the 6-foot-7 Graham to three catches for 42 yards. But Wright is out with a foot injury that required surgery and has forced him to miss the past three games. So covering Graham, who led all NFL tight ends in receptions (86) and all NFL players in touchdown catches (16), will be a by-committee approach depending on where Graham lines up and whether the Seahawks are in man-to-man or zone coverage. The All-Pro trio of cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor will get their turns covering Graham. So will linebackers Malcolm Smith, who is starting for Wright; Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin; as will cornerback Byron Maxwell and nickel back Jeremy Lane. Whoever’s on Graham can’t allow him to have a game-breaking afternoon.

Don’t overlook

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Saints QB Drew Brees: Wilson won Round One, as he passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 13 game. Brees, meanwhile, passed for 147 yards, his fewest since Week 16 in 2006. One key was the pressure the Seahawks were able to generate, despite getting only one sack – a fumble-forcing effort by Cliff Avril that Michael Bennett returned for a touchdown. Another key was the secondary taking away the Saints’ deep ball, as Brees was 0 of 8 on passes of at least 15 yards downfield, as the Legion of Boom broke up five of those throws. It was the only time this season that Brees didn’t hit a deep throw. So while Wilson vs. Brees is not a mano-a-mano matchup, the QB who has the better day likely leads his team to the NFC Championship game.

Worth noting

The Seahawks lead the series 7-6, including their victories in Week 11 this season and the 2010 wild-card playoff game. … The Seahawks’ defense led the NFL in average points (14.4), yards (273.6) and passing yards (172.0) allowed, as well as turnovers (39) and interceptions (28). … Sherman led the NFL with eight interceptions and also has a league-high 20 since 2011. … Each team has scored and allowed its most points in the second quarter – 140 scored and 108 allowed for the Seahawks; 155 and 112 for the Saints. … DE Jordan Cameron had 12.5 of the Saints’ 49 sacks. … While Graham had 16 of the Saints’ 39 TD catches, the Seahawks had three players combine for 15 of their 27 – WRs Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin and TE Zach Miller, with five each. … The Seahawks allowed 16 TD passes and held opposing QBs to a league-low passer rating of 63.4. … MLB Bobby Wagner (119) and Thomas (100) were the Seahawks’ leading tacklers during the regular season; while ILBs Curtis Lofton (139) and David Hawthorne (122) led the Saints.