Let’s breakdown the units and make a pick.
It’s the better situation, not straight up better quarterback. Drew Brees had one of the worst games of his career just more than five weeks ago against the top-ranked Seattle defense. Russell Wilson will face a Saints defense that has lost its top player in the secondary since they were last here. He also tortured them the first time around.
Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,257 yards. The Saints ran for 1,473 yards, despite trying to run the ball more often at the close of the season and last week against the Philadelphia Eagles. This is a distinct advantage for Seattle’s power approach.
The return of Percy Harvin levels this out for a Seahawks receiving squad which has been viewed as the soft spot on the team despite efficient production throughout the season. Marques Colston and Kenny Stills are complemented by running back Darren Sproles.
Zach Miller has been to the Pro Bowl in the past, but it’s Jimmy Graham’s time now. Graham is arguably the best in the league, though his hands aren’t on the level of a Tony Gonzalez in his prime. Also, Seattle backup Luke Willson is still hobbled by a high ankle sprain. He’ll play, but be slowed.
A week of rest should help Seattle’s offensive line, notably left tackle Russell Okung who re-injured the toe that kept him out for eight weeks earlier in the season. The Saints’ line had trouble pass protecting the last time, but has improved in run blocking of late.
No Seahawk can approach the 12.5 sacks for Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, but New Orleans has just five more sacks than the Seahawks. The Seahawks also have better packages specific to the run or pass.
The Saints have three solid ones Curtis Lofton, Junior Galette (12 sacks) and former Seahawk David Hawthorne (91 tackles). The Seahawks counter with Bobby Wagner (120 tackles), plus versatile Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin. Losing K.J. Wright is a blow for the Seahawks, but no a decisive one.
An argument could be made either way for most of these other categories, but not here. Byron Maxwell is proving to be an upgrade over Brandon Browner and his three running mates were named All-Pro first or second team. Walter Thurmond is a starter anywhere else and merely a nickel back in Seattle.
The Seahawks have the best punt coverage unit in the league and a kick return team that will get a boost from the return of Harvin. Steven Hauschka was the second-most accurate kicker in the league (94.3 percent); the Saints’ picked up veteran Shayne Graham three weeks ago, though he has been perfect (6-for-6) since.
Sean Payton has won a Super Bowl, been an AP NFL coach of the year and is 6-3 in the postseason. Pete Carroll is 3-4 in his career in the playoffs, going 2-2 with the Seahawks. He still has things to prove. Payton does not.
Usually this is a spot to say something clever, but I’ll stick with simplicity: It won’t be close.
Seahawks 31, Saints 17
Here are our other staff picks:
Dave Boling, Columnist: Drew Brees and the Saints will be fired up to reverse December defeat, but it won’t be nearly enough. Seahawks 30, Saints 17
John McGrath, Columnist: Rematch won’t resemble the mismatch of Dec. 2, but the Saints are signing guys off the street for help in their secondary. Look for the Hawks to break it open late. Seahawks 27, Saints 16
Darrin Beene, Sports Editor: The game will be closer than what you think, but the Seahawks will advance to the NFC Championship game. Seahawks 28, Saints 27