SEATTLE — In a stadium that was silent and practically empty, with no fans in the stands and less than a dozen players on the field warming up, Jimmy Graham went fake tough guy. If we're going down, he was thinking, we're going down in a blaze of trash talking, shoving, spittled glory.
They tried, these New Orleans Saints. They tried to change their road mindset to shift the inevitable loss that was to come on a stormy, earthquake-y day. They even made a valiant run late, but in the end, in the outdoors, in the rain, in this place, the Saints can't win. In a place like this, where seasons die and the Seahawks have won 16 of their past 17, the Saints are frauds.
Graham would trash talk, and after the game, the Seahawks teed off on him.
Seattle's Michael Bennett ripped Graham in a post-game radio interview with Seattle's 710 AM radio. Then when I approached Bennett, he didn't back down one bit. "To me, he's one of the softest players in the NFL," Bennett said. "He's overrated. I think he's the most overrated player in the NFL. I don't like him as a player or a person."
Oh. OK then.
The Saints were louder, brasher, talkier, but they lost 23-15 in the divisional round, because they weren't as tough as they talked. The Seahawks were tougher. The Seahawks, at home, are tougher than everyone. They will play the Carolina-San Francisco winner next Sunday in Seattle, and the Seahawks will be tougher than either of them, too.
In his heart, Sean Payton knew drastic measures were needed to win. It's why he painted a Seahawks logo on the New Orleans practice field in the week leading up this game. At practice, they blared noise over loud speakers. Payton was trying his usual mind games to get the Saints to believe they could win.
Graham also believed something drastic needed to happen. Hours before the game, in the pre-pregame warm-ups, in which just a handful of players were on the CenturyLink field to stretch and catch a few passes, Graham got into a verbal altercation with a group of Seattle players. In one moment, Graham ripped the hat off of Seattle's Bruce Irvin. It can't be overstated how you almost never, ever see on-field trash talking in the NFL so far ahead of game time. Never happens, and it showed the desperation of the Saints to try anything to change the inevitable.
Irvin said the issue started when he asked Graham to get out of their practice area. Graham refused, and the jawing started. Graham concluded that first round of kerfuffles with a thunderous dunk over the goalpost and then went into the locker room. Statement made.
About 30 minutes later, as both teams jogged onto the field for the actual warm-ups, Graham and another Saints player got into it again with the Seahawks. This time it was at the 50-yard line, and Graham had to be restrained as he and Kenny Stills beefed with Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
Sherman said that Graham said he was going to run over Seahawks players. Statement made, the sequel.
It seemed smart. It seemed motivational. Blare music. Paint the field. Start pregame nonsense. Appear to be tough and physical so far ahead of the game.
The problem is that toughness can't be faked. It can't be game-planned. It's not something you can take a pill for or diagram on a blackboard. It's there or it isn't. Graham would experience this first-hand. Graham had his first catch with 24 seconds left. The Saints' backups, who were quiet during the pregame, were more effective.
When the wind is blowing and the rain is falling and the toughest defense in football is in your face, and Marshawn Lynch is lowering his shoulder pads into your sternum, what do you do? What do you do?
If you're the Saints, and you're here, you fold. You fold after putting on a big pregame show of toughness, but you fold nonetheless. Yes, they won last week on the road in Philadelphia, but that was an anomaly. They beat a young Eagles team from a horrible division.
When it was time to play the big boys, the Saints shriveled. They tried to act the tough guy before the game, and then got punk'd when the actual football started.
The noise, weather, athleticism and ferocity creates a polar vortex of Seahawk ass whuppin' few teams can deal with.
"The defense just wouldn't let them have anything," coach Pete Carroll said.
The score was deceptive. It really wasn't close. The Seahawks offense, until late, mostly misfired—and still the Saints couldn't truly threaten until the fourth quarter. New Orleans got a touchdown with 26 seconds left to make it 23-15. Then Marshawn Lynch bullied the wanna-be bullies.
Graham had more altercations (two) than he did catches (one). In the combined first halves of play in the two meetings this season, quarterback Drew Brees has a total of 108 passing yards. In the first quarter of this game, Brees was 3-of-4 for 19 yards. In the first half, he was 5-of-12 for 34 with a 49.3 passer rating.
The biggest problem for the Saints is they tried to play the tough guy with, you know, real tough guys. The reason the Seahawks have long been a Super Bowl favorite is because they have the greatest home-field advantage in football, are well-rounded, and more than anything are mentally and physically tough.
The elements don't bother Seattle. The opponent doesn't. Trash talking doesn't. In fact, despite being so stunningly talented, they play with a huge chip on their pads. I've been told by Seahawks players that all of the Adderall and PED speculation has created an us-against-the-world mentality.
You see it epitomized by the Seattle defense. It makes an offense fight to do even basic things like, you know, block. For three quarters (seven if you count both games), they managed to make one of the most prolific throwers in the history of the sport look like Mark Sanchez. The only thing missing was the headband and supermodels.
If there is one criticism of the Seahawks, it is that they rely almost too much on that defense. That was evident late in the game when Seattle went uber-conservative and basically handed the game to its defense. No matter how much the Saints were struggling offensively, they are still an NFL team and dangerous when cornered. New Orleans made it 16-8 in the fourth quarter. It was just a one-possession game.
But again, it was the bark of the Saints versus their actual play and decision making. Some of the play calls and mistakes made by the Saints were inexplicable. At one point late, the Saints had two holding penalties and a delay of game in the same series.
After recovering an onside kick, and with a chance to tie the score. Marques Colston, instead of stepping out of bounds, threw an illegal forward pass. Had Colston just gone out, the Saints would have a had a shot, even if it was a long shot, at scoring.
The lesson from this game is a simple one. The Seahawks won't be beat here. Even when offensively they didn't play well, they can still dominate for long stretches. They are likely going to the Super Bowl, and because their attitude—and defense—is portable, they can beat anyone.
In the Seattle locker room, players were incredulous at the pre-pregame antics, and then the pregame antics, of the Saints. They overall felt like the Saints were showing massive disrespect on their home field.
New Orleans acted as if it belonged. But after everything, the Saints showed they were all talk, after all.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.