The mutual respect between the Seahawks and Saints has been on display this week, with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees praising Seattle's defense, and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll raving about Brees and New Orleans' prolific offense, with both sides admiring the consistency with which the other has performed over the years.
So it should come as no surprise that when the Seahawks play at New Orleans Sunday, one of the biggest matchups will be between one of the league's stingiest defense and one of its best offenses.
Here are three key matchups that could make the difference on Sunday:
1. Drew Brees and the Saints' passing attack vs. Seattle's pass defense.
Just as the Seahawks have been able to count on their stingy defense for several years, the Saints know they have a chance to be in just about every game because of Brees and their passing game. The Saints don't bother with balance—they rank first in the NFL in passing yards and 28th in rushing yards—but they have been successful on offense, ranking third in the NFL with 29.3 points per game and second with 421.7 yards per game.
"They stick to what they do best," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "It sounds and looks really familiar. They know who they are. They trust in their ability, they trust in their system, they trust in their quarterback, they trust the play caller and they go out and execute, game after game."
The Saints have been able to lean so heavily on their passing game because Brees is, as Carroll puts it, "one of the great players to play in this game. I don't think of guys in that way until they've played a really long time. He has sustained the great level of production for, I don't know how many years he has been there, but for the last eight to 10 years, he has been on top with huge numbers and huge consistency and the kind of special performances and ability to pull off finishes and the great red-zone numbers, the great third-down numbers, year after year after year… This is a really bigtime challenge for anybody who plays these guys. He's putting the numbers up every week, it's the second ranked offense and all the rest. He doesn't look any different than he has in a long time. He doesn't look like there's any diminishing qualities to his play."
2. Seattle's pass rush vs. the Saints' O-line, and Brees' ability to get rid of the ball quickly.
With Cliff Avril playing as well as he ever has, with Frank Clark making big contributions, and with Michael Bennett being, well, Michael Bennett, the Seahawks' pass rush looks like it might be as good as it has ever been under Carroll. Through six games, the Seahawks have 20 sacks, putting them on pace to eclipse the 2013 team's total of 44.
"Everybody is playing really well, from Bobby (Wagner) to K.J. (Wright), rushing the passer, we just have so many people that can rush," Bennett said. "I think before we just had a couple people that could rush, right now we have over six or seven guys that can get to the quarterback. Cassius Marsh can rush, Jarran (Reed) is rushing good, (Tony McDaniel) is rushing good, (Ahtyba Rubin) is rushing good, Cliff is rushing great, Frank is rushing great. There's just so many great rushers and I think that's what going really well right now."
Adding to that number on Sunday will be a challenge, however, not only because New Orleans protects well, but also because Brees is so good at getting rid of the ball quickly. That combination has led to the Saints allowing just nine sacks this season.
"(Brees) is great rhythm guy, getting the ball out," Carroll said. "They've only been sacked nine times. He's a phenomenal talent. It's a great challenge for us."
With Brees being so good at getting rid of the ball, aggressive coverage is key, Carroll said. Even if Brees wants to throw the ball quickly, he won't force things if Seattle's coverage is tight enough, which is one way to help pass rushers have enough time to get home.
"It challenges your coverage to be aggressive," Carroll said. "If you just lay back, he'll just tear you up. He'll hit 75 percent of his passes and he'll have a clean day. So we have to be very aggressive in coverage that matches with the rush that's coming, so he doesn't have the opportunity to get everything out. He's going to get the ball out quickly anyways, even in one-on-ones and tight coverage, he'll still get the ball out, but you have a better chance of slowing him down some. The rhythm when he really wants to get fast, there's almost no rush that can get there, because he's coming out probably less than two and a half seconds. It's really close to 1.9s, right in there. When he's like that, the ball is going to get out. You have to have coverage that's close and you have to make him pay for that release. The only way to do that is to play good, aggressive coverage. It's the combination, when you play a great quarterback, it's the combinations of all aspects. You can't just cover up, you can't just rush him, you can't just blitz him. You have to be able to do all those things and it's always been that way."
3. An offense looking to rebound vs. the chaos.
When you look at New Orleans' stats, this looks like a potential "get-right" game for an offense that managed just five first downs in regulation last week, but the Seahawks know they can't go into this game assuming they'll move the ball easily against the Saints. Yes, New Orleans ranks dead last in scoring defense and 29th in yards allowed, but facing the Saints in the Superdome is another story. Between crowd noise and the Saints' penchant for changing things ups on defense, it can be hard for an offense to function normally at New Orleans.
"I've been there and played the NFC Championship there, it's a loud place," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. "That's something that we're going to have to manage. The defense gives you a whole bunch of different looks, they play a lot of different personnels. With the crowd noise and all the things that can go on, that can make things feel like there's a lot of chaos. We have to stay calm, we have to keep our poise, handle the crowd noise and handle the looks from the defense."
If the Seahawks keep their poise, they hope the end result will be a drastic improvement on a game in which they managed just six points and didn't get going until overtime.
"Not good," Bevell said of last week's performance at Arizona. "We didn't score enough points obviously. There's so many things going on, we just didn't do well enough. We weren't consistent."
This Sunday the Seahawks will face the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Throughout their history, these two teams have battled 12 times splitting the all-time series 6-6.