Seattle (7-9) vs. New Orleans (11-5), 1:30 p.m. Saturday on NBC
The Series: New Orleans holds a 6-5 advantage. However, the Saints are 0-3 on the road in the postseason, while the Seahawks are 4-1 at home since Qwest Field opened in 2002, including winning the last four straight at home. This is the first playoff meeting between the two teams.
The Coaches: New Orleans head coach Sean Payton is 49-31 in five seasons with the Saints. His teams have made two playoff appearances, including winning it all last year. Payton has a 4-1 playoff record. The Saints also made the playoffs in 2006 under Payton, finishing 1-1 that season. Seattle’s Pete Carroll has a 40-40 record in five seasons in the NFL. This is his third playoff appearance, having made the playoffs twice while the head coach in New England in 1997 and ’98. He has a 1-2 record in the postseason.
Last game: The Saints defeated Seattle 34-19 in New Orleans on Nov. 21. Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and New Orleans finished with 494 yards of total offense.
Injury report: For Seattle – The Seahawks have no one listed on the injury report this week. For New Orleans – LB Danny Clark, TE Jimmy Graham, DT Anthony Hargrove, and S Malcolm Jenkins – all starters – have been ruled out. DE Alex Brown, WR Marques Colston, TE Jeremy Shockey, TE David Thomas, and LB Anthony Waters are probable.
Quarterback: Matt Hasselbeck struggled for a second straight season, throwing for 3,001 yards, 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 14 games. But he’s been here before (4-5 record in the playoffs), and has the most postseason starts of any quarterback in the NFC. Drew Brees plays with poise and directs one of the more prolific offenses in the league, finishing with 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns. Brees led the league by completing 68.1 percent of his passes this season, but he also threw 22 interceptions, second in the league to the N.Y. Giants’ Eli Manning. Brees’ 66.7 completion percentage in the postseason is best in NFL history, and his 103.7 passer rating is second highest.
Running back: With the Saints two workhorses in Chris Ivory (foot) and Pierre Thomas (ankle) done for the year, New Orleans will rely on a steady diet of Julius Jones and Reggie Bush. We all know the amazing talent that Bush possesses, but he’s not an every-down back, and the duo combined for 343 yards this season. While Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington lack pizzazz, they have got the job done when the holes are there (a combined 1,196 rushing yards for Seattle this year).
Receivers: Marques Colston finished with his second straight 1,000-yard season (84 rec., 1,023 yards and 7 TDs), but he’s not alone. Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson all can make plays. The Seahawks counter with Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu, and tight end John Carlson hopes to get more involved in the offense now that Seattle’s pass protection up front has improved.
Offensive line: The Saints have two, Pro Bowl guards in Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. New Orleans has only allowed 26 sacks this season, fifth-best in the league. And the Saints average 4 yards a carry on the ground. The Seahawks have used 10 different offensive line combinations this season and still lack cohesion up front, although hobbled rookie offensive tackle Russell Okung, the key to Seattle’s success up front, has played better of late.
Defensive line: The Saints have 33 sacks on the season, with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis leading the team with just six sacks. New Orleans also has been somewhat susceptible against the run, giving up 112 yards a contest. The Seahawks have 33 sacks on the year, with Chris Clemons (11) and Raheem Brock (9) combining for 20 sacks. But Seattle has struggled against the run, giving up an average of 119 yards a contest.
Linebacker: Jonathan Vilma leads the Saints in tackles with 106, and is one of the more cerebral players in the game. And Scott Shanle is underrated at his position. But linebacker is the strength of the defense for Seattle, with Lofa Tatupu providing stability inside, Aaron Curry playing better against the run and David Hawthorne again serving as a tackling machine, reaching 100 tackles for a second straight season (104 total, 74 solo). One area where Seattle’s LBs could struggle is keeping up with the Saints athletic tight ends and running back Reggie Bush in the underneath routes in the passing game.
Secondary: New Orleans has one of the better pass defenses in the game, only giving up an average of 193 passing yards a game. However, Matt Hasselbeck finished with a season-high 366 passing yards against the Saints earlier this season. Seattle’s secondary will lean on the experience of safety Lawyer Milloy, who will play in 11th career playoff game. But they’ll have to play much better in the back end, particularly Earl Thomas and corners Kelly Jennings and Marcus Trufant. The Seahawks have given up 31 passing touchdowns, tied for third-worst in the league.
Special teams: Seattle’s Leon Washington is one of the best returners in the game, and punter Jon Ryan has done a nice job of placing the ball inside the 20-yard line and kicker Olindo Mare is one of the top kickers in touchbacks, helping Seattle control field position. New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley has been inconsistent, and the Saints’ kick coverage unit is in the bottom third of the league.
Coaching: Pete Carroll has done a nice job in his first year back in the NFL with Seattle, somehow getting them back into the playoffs after a two-year absence, but Sean Payton is at the top of his game right now in his coaching career, coming off a Super Bowl run last year. Payton will be tested this season because the road to the playoffs does not go through the Superdome, as the Saints take their game on the road.
The News Tribune Pick: The Saints are the prohibitive favorites, but expect Seattle to keep the game close, especially if they can get off to a good start. The weather, New Orleans traveling 2,100 miles and the Saints’ injuries will all play a factor.