After dismantling the New Orleans Saints by a score of 34-7 just over a month ago, the Seattle Seahawks are heavy favorites to advance to the NFC Championship Game. They will host New Orleans in the NFC divisional playoff round on Jan. 11; however, there is reason to believe that this meeting will be much different than the last.
After beating the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in the Wild Card Round, the Saints will enter CenturyLink Field with confidence and momentum on their side. That doesn't necessarily mean that they'll pull off the upset in Seattle, but it's difficult to imagine them laying an egg like they did last time.
Plenty has changed for both teams over the past month, and several players figure to play an integral role in deciding of this game. Guys like Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are obviously worth watching, but here are three X-factors that will play a bigger role than most realize.
Wide receiver Percy Harvin has played in exactly one game for the Seahawks this season due to a persistent hip injury, but Seattle still managed to go 13-3 and secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC. That might suggest that the Seahawks don't need Harvin, but his return can't possibly be a bad thing. Harvin is finally healthy enough to play, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, and it comes at the perfect time as the Seahawks prepare to make a run toward the Super Bowl.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said WR Percy Harvin will play Saturday vs. Saints.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 9, 2014
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson enjoyed an excellent 2013 regular season, but he did it without any truly dynamic weapons in the passing game. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin both made plays when they were called upon, but neither of them are true No. 1, go-to guys. Harvin, on the other hand, proved to be exactly that while with the Minnesota Vikings. Although injuries have always limited Harvin to some degree, there is no denying the fact that he is a game-changing player when he's on the field.
Harvin probably won't play the majority of the snaps in Seattle's offense against New Orleans, but he can be used effectively in spurts. Through screens, quick slants, swing passes and even running plays, the Seahawks can get the ball in Harvin's hands, get him in space and let him do his thing. If nothing else, he will keep the Saints' defense off balance and force them to account for him when he's out there. That, in turn, will open things up for everyone else on Seattle's offense.
Although few seem to actually realize it, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis is developing into an elite player at his position. If it wasn't already apparent heading into the playoffs, it became abundantly clear during New Orleans' Wild Card Round tilt with the Eagles. Lewis rendered Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson moot until he was forced to leave the game with a concussion. It was certainly no coincidence that Jackson started to make big plays down the field immediately after.
In fact, the entire complexion of the game changed when Lewis got injured. The Eagles battled back and actually managed to take the lead late, but the Saints escaped with a win on a field goal at the end of regulation. Had Lewis not gotten injured, it can definitely be argued that New Orleans would have cruised. There was plenty of concern regarding Lewis' status for the divisional round, but it turns out that he will likely play with a probable designation, according to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com.
Having Lewis makes New Orleans' defense so much better, and it should allow the Saints to essentially lock down one side of the field. Lewis will probably cover Tate since Harvin won't play a full allotment of snaps, which means that the onus will fall on Baldwin and running back Marshawn Lynch to carry the offensive load for Seattle. Having to focus on fewer players that can hurt them helps the Saints' defense immensely.
Which X-factor will play the biggest role in Saints vs. Seahawks?
Bruce Irvin burst onto the scene as a rookie defensive end for the Seahawks in 2012 with eight sacks, but there wasn't much to his game other than that. Irvin was very much a situational player who was simply asked to pin his ears back and attack the quarterback. There is no doubt that Irvin did a nice job in that role, however, it limited his value. Irvin has broadened his horizons in a major way this season as a linebacker, and he has become a far more complete player.
Irvin's stats aren't as eye-popping since he has just two sacks, but his contributions to the team as a whole are so much greater this season than last. Even Irvin himself has noticed the changes in his game over the past year, according to Curtis Crabtree of Pro Football Talk.
I think it shows that I'm capable of doing more than just coming in on third downs or passing situations and rushing the passer, I can drop (into coverage). I've got a chance to show I can make open field tackles. Man-to-man containing the running backs, rushing the tight ends and the running backs. It's more of a complete position than being a specialist as I was last year.
Irvin will truly be tested by a Saints offense that mixes things up constantly. Deception is a big part of New Orleans' offense, and it's likely that the Saints will attempt to attack Irvin since he's still adapting to the linebacker position. Also, even though Irvin is a linebacker now, it doesn't mean that his pass-rushing instincts have disappeared. Irvin can still get to the quarterback when he is asked to, which means Brees will have to be on his toes.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter