Possible playoff preview as Seahawks host Saints
SEATTLE — In the bigger picture of the top two teams in the NFC meeting Monday night and what could be at stake in the postseason, getting a victory would be of more importance for New Orleans.
As much as Drew Brees and Sean Payton have worked to change the perception of a franchise that for most of its history has struggled, there is one reality about the postseason still staring New Orleans in the face: The Saints have never won a playoff game on the road.
While nothing can be clinched by the outcome Monday between the Saints (9-2) and Seahawks (10-1), New Orleans seems to understand a loss likely means the road through the NFC playoffs will go through Seattle.
"Both teams understand what we got ahead of us, what this game means to both teams," New Orleans safety Roman Harper said. "It's huge, and if we can get this one, we understand what it sets up for us to be able to do. It puts us in position to accomplish some things we've been talking about all year long. All these things are starting to build up and we're right in the place we want to be. It's a great opportunity for us. We've got a tough one on the road and it will be a great matchup for us."
Seattle understands the home-field importance, too. While the Seahawks showed last year they can win on the road in the postseason, Seattle's only Super Bowl trip came after having home-field advantage in the playoffs in the 2005 season.
A win over the Saints would leave Seattle two games up on everyone in the NFC with tiebreakers in hand.
"It feels good just with the way our team is performing. Everybody is playing together, everybody is playing for one another, and everybody is executing down the stretch," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Nobody is getting nervous or starting to look ahead or looking past anyone.
Here are five other things to watch in the Monday night showdown:
KNOCK OFF THE RUST: The last time Seattle was on the field, it had its offensive line fully intact for the first time since the first quarter of Week 2 with the returns of Russell Okung, Breno Giacomini and Max Unger from injuries. Wilson was sacked only once, but the line was admittedly rusty in protections.
The Seahawks better be at their best against the Saints, who lead the NFL with 37 sacks. Cameron Jordan tops the Saints' pass rush with 9 1-2 sacks, and the Seahawks know a variety of pressures are coming from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
"He does like to change his plan week to week so it's a little bit harder to zero in on what he's going to do, but it's always aggressive and always tough," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
BEAST MODE: Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard TD run against the Saints in the playoffs three seasons ago has been viewed over a million times on YouTube. It was a career-highlight run for Lynch, but his ability to regularly get 4 or 5 yards against the current Saints on Monday night could be critical. New Orleans' run defense is 25th in the NFL, but the Saints are so often playing with a lead that their ability to stop the run becomes moot as opponents try to rally.
If Lynch and the Seahawks can control possession and convert drives into points, the Saints' struggles with stopping the run could be exposed.
CORNERBACK CONCERN: Seattle was without starting cornerback Brandon Browner due to a groin injury. His replacement, Walter Thurmond, was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
The Seahawks will face the most prolific passing offense in the NFC with backup Byron Maxwell starting opposite Sherman and second-year player Jeremy Lane seeing significant playing time.
"They are going to come in and play the same type of technique," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "You don't see something change differently in regards to how they play a certain coverage or how they play a technique."
GRAHAM'S GREATNESS: Jimmy Graham has already tied the NFL record for most 100-yard receiving games in a season by a tight end with six. The one time this season Graham was held in check this season was against New England. The Patriots put cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham almost exclusively on him and it worked. Graham was targeted six times and went without a catch. It was the first time since his rookie season that Graham was shut out.
Could Seattle follow suit and use Sherman on Graham?
HARVIN HEALTH: Just when it seemed the Seahawks were getting fully healthy, they go into Monday's game with wide receiver Percy Harvin doubtful due to lingering soreness in his surgically repaired hip. Harvin was in on 19 offensive plays and two kickoff returns in Week 11 against Minnesota, but soreness from that game has lingered.
If Harvin can't go, the Seahawks would have just four healthy receivers on the active roster.