Saints vs. Seahawks: 10 Bold Predictions for First Game of 2011 NFL Playoffs
Is there a first-round playoff matchup of two teams at more different ends of the spectrum than this?
The New Orleans Saints come into this game as the defending Super Bowl champions. They're fresh off another great regular season and view this as simply a steppingstone to a title defense.
The Seattle Seahawks come into this game just happy to be here after squeaking into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth in the last game of the season with a losing record.
Of course, by that logic, the Seahawks get to host the game. The question is, will it matter?
Here are 10 things that will.
10) Matt Hasselbeck Was the Right Choice
For the do-or-die final game of the regular season, a game that was every bit a playoff game for Seattle as this game will be, it was Charlie Whitehurst who led them to victory.
The only problem is, he's only started at quarterback in the NFL one other time in his career.
That means that head coach Pete Carroll is going with good ol' tried and true Matt Hasselbeck, all 35 years of him, in this one. He made the official announcement yesterday.
This is the right call. In the playoffs, experience matters. Hasselbeck has been the Seahawks' guy not just this year, but for the last decade. Not giving him every chance to lead them here would be a slap in the face.
He's been in a Super Bowl before. He won't get flustered here. He'll still face formidable odds, but Hasselbeck is the right choice for Seattle.
9) Seattle Scores First
With Hasselbeck's experience will come an ability to keep his team calm and focused, at least early on, in what is sure to be a pressure cooker environment.
The fans will be crazy and will provide a lot of momentum and energy for the Seahawks right off the bat. For any team, even a defending Super Bowl champion, that energy out of the gate can feel like a whirlwind that hits you full force.
I think Hasselbeck leads an early drive that catches the Saints a bit off guard and gets them on their heels. Seattle feeds off the early energy to get a big play through the air that leads to a score.
Seahawks on top, 7-0.
8) The Saints Bring the Pressure
OK, this one's a bit of a gimme, but it's still true.
Partially spurred by a desire to break Hasselbeck's early rhythm, the Saints will start to send out more and more blitz packages, trying to give Seattle as many different defensive looks as possible.
The M.O. of New Orleans' defensive unit is to bring the pressure early and often, and they brought more than five pass rushers as much as any NFC playoff team this year.
Eventually, they'll be able to make Hasselbeck try to rush things just a bit too much, which will lead to...
7) An INT Will Change the Game
The Saints' ball-hawking secondary feeds off the pressure brought by the front seven.
Gregg Williams' defense will start getting the schemes right and eventually will land that most coveted of trophies, especially in the playoffs: the turnover.
Most of the time, whoever wins the turnover battle wins the game, and the Saints will be the first team to force a turnover in this one. Hasselbeck has shown a propensity for finding the wrong team this year with 17 interceptions (to go along with just 12 touchdowns).
The pendulum will start to swing in the Saints' direction, but still...
6) It'll Be a Game at the Half
I think Seattle, with all its faults, will be able to muster up enough resolve to keep this one close at the break.
Remember, they were able to score 16 points on the Saints in the first half back in November, and that was in the Superdome. Sure, they also gave up 27 first-half points, but that's beside the point here...
The defense will be resilient enough, and the Saints will be at least a little off their game with the outdoor, cold January weather. They're still an explosive offense, but they're used to playing indoors in a climate-controlled environment, not having to deal with the elements. That has to count for something.
5) There's a Hefty Dose of Marshawn Lynch
Once those blitz packages start to come fast and furious, Seattle will have to turn even more towards the running game.
Slowing the game down and controlling the ball and the clock should be something Pete Carroll and crew try to accomplish from the get-go anyway, because they simply don't have the weapons to compete if this game turns into a shootout. It's about game management for them.
That means Marshawn Lynch. The former Buffalo Bill carried the ball just seven times for 36 yards when these two teams met in the regular season. That simply won't cut it. Seattle has to get him involved in the offense early and often and hope he's able to find some room to run.
The more Seattle is able to run the ball, and the clock, the less the Saints offense gets to be on the field. That's the recipe for an upset.
4) It Becomes a Vertical Game
On the other side, the Saints won't be able to muster much of a running game of their own, so they'll air it out that much more.
This will be owed mostly to the fact that the Saints' top two rushers from the season, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, were both placed on injured reserve this week. That leaves former 'Hawk Julius Jones and his 223 rushing yards as the Saints' leading rusher.
They'll try to get him going early, but he'll be stymied, so Drew Brees, as usual, will have to carry much of the load on his shoulders. Not that he's not capable of doing just that, of course.
Brees will spread the field, and the Saints will look to stretch Seattle's defense with three- and four-wideout looks. Marques Colston has looked ready to go in practice and should have no problem getting behind the defense for big strikes.
The aerial assault will allow the Saints to control the pace in the second half. The Saints will also eventually find themselves looking to a familiar face...
3) Reggie Bush Is the X-Factor
No matter how much he's sometimes written off, Reggie Bush always seems to be able to make an impact, whether it be from scrimmage or on special teams.
He'll certainly have to shoulder more of the load as a running back with New Orleans' aforementioned lack of healthy bodies in that area. I think they turn to him over Julius Jones more and more in the second half.
He's also always a threat to change field position on punt returns and has been able to be most effective after getting healthy down the stretch this season as an extra receiver, where his ability to make people miss in the open field after catching the ball on short patterns is a bonus.
I think he'll be involved in at least one big play that opens up the game for the Saints in the second half.
2) Home Field Doesn't Mean Much
Yeah, they'll be loud, and they'll give the Seahawks a push to start strong, but it just won't be able to last.
Home field advantage means more when the teams on that field are more evenly matched. Even though it's backwards here, I'm glad it worked out this way since a game in the bayou would be that much more lopsided. At least now we have a chance for it to be interesting.
But hey, Seattle fans, you've made it this far—and you don't need to make any apologies for your 7-9 division champions. You're here, and that's all that matters. Look at how many cities don't get to host a playoff game this year.
Enjoy it while you can.
1) The Saints Go Marching On
In the end, the script plays out as it should. The Saints handled these Seahawks without much fuss just over a month ago, and they'll do it again.
It's really too bad for Seattle that as one of the worst division champions ever, they have to face one of the best wild cards ever right out of the gate. I guess that's their punishment.
The Saints can be slow out of the gate and have shown a willingness to let teams hang around for far too long this season, but eventually there'll be too much Drew Brees and not enough of anyone in blue and green.
New Orleans advances, 31-21, to set up the game everyone wants to see: round three vs. Atlanta.