Matchup: New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Site: CenturyLink Field (Seattle, Washington)
The Seahawks kick off the final five games of the 2013 regular season this week on Monday Night Football as they host the NFC South leading New Orleans Saints. The Seahawks are 10-1 and currently hold a one game lead on the top seed in the NFC playoff race. Enter the 9-2 Saints, who are the ones that trail the Seahawks in the NFC standings. The winner of this game will have the edge for home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. The all-time series between these two teams is tied 6-6. Their last meeting came in a 2010 NFC Wild-Card playoff game when the 7-9 Seahawks upset New Orleans 41-36. Of course the iconic moment of this game was Marshawn Lynch’s 67-yard “Beast Quake” touchdown run late in the fourth quarter that essentially cemented the Seahawks with the victory. There is a lot on this line this week and a nationally televised audience will witness one of the more highly anticipated games of the second half of the season. Here is what I will be looking for out of both the Seahawks and Saints in this game.
I start with the Seahawks defense because we will be without a key starter in the secondary. Cornerback Walter Thurmond has been suspended 4 games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy thus he will not play this week. Byron Maxwell will start and Jeremy Lane will also see playing time opposite of Richard Sherman. The main key on defense this week is to play smart and to not give up big, game-altering plays. Facing an elite quarterback such as Drew Brees, it will be likely that the Saints offense will try to stretch the field and with younger players filling in in the secondary, the chances of coverage’s being blown could be greater than if Thurmond or Brandon Browner were playing. In order to prevent Brees from having time to make deep throws our pass rush needs to have one of their best games of the season. The Saints offensive line ranks 5th in the NFL in sacks allowed so it will be necessary to send various blitz packages to confuse New Orleans and to force Brees into sacks and bad decisions. I have full confidence in Lane and Maxwell to step up and play well but their matchups this week are not favorable, especially after having a long break following the bye week.
After scoring 41 points against Minnesota two weeks ago, the Seahawks offense is primed to breakout starting on Monday night. It all starts with the running game. If the Seahawks can get Marshawn Lynch going early, control the ball, and control the clock, the Seahawks will be well on their way to a victory. The problem is that Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is one of the best coaches in the game and he will certainly be orchestrating a gameplan that will put a focus on stopping the Seahawks running game. It will be very important for the Seahawks offensive line to protect Russell Wilson so he can utilize all of the weapons around him, especially since wide receiver Percy Harvin will not play due to a hip injury. Golden Tate will be Wilson’s go-to guy this week and Jermaine Kearse could also make a big impact this week. Keep your eye out for those two playmakers to get the ball in their hands often this week.
The New Orleans Saints boast one of the league’s most dominant offensive units. They are good because of a two-headed monster; the interchangeable and underrated running game featuring running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, and the powerful passing game led by quarterback Drew Brees. Brees is 353 yards away from becoming the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 this season. The Saints passing game ranks second in the league overall and it will be the primary emphasis for the Seahawks defense this week. After studying the Saints on film I took away an interesting statistic. In the “first 15” (the first 15 plays previously scripted for an offense to run) the Saints threw the ball at nearly a 2:1 ratio, more than any other team the Seahawks have played so far this season. Drew Brees is known for picking apart the weaknesses of opposing defenses and he does an excellent job doing so, which is why I believe he will try to throw to wide receiver Kenny Stills often this week since Stills will line up opposite of either Byron Maxwell or Jeremy Lane. There is also a big matchup to watch in the middle of the field, literally. New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham is Brees’ favorite receiver and it takes multiple players to bring Graham down. Look for Kam Chancellor to shadow Graham on passing plays, as Chancellor is the biggest defender in the third level of the Seahawks defense.
The Saints dominant offense has been around for a long time but it is the Saints defense that has helped turn the team into an elite power. The Saints defense ranks in the top half of the league in both passing yards allowed (3rd) and rushing yards allowed (15th). When looking at the Saints defensive stat sheet there is one column that worries me greatly this week: the Saints do an incredible job of rushing the passer. The intimidating pass rush threat could force Russell Wilson into bad throws this week. Wilson must know where cornerback Keenan Lewis is lined up on the field, as Lewis leads New Orleans defenders in interceptions with 3. In regards to the Saints pass rush, 14 different players have recorded sacks this season and 7 of those players have recorded 2.5 sacks or more. Cameron Jordan leads all Saints defenders in sacks with 9.5 but my X-Factor player to watch this week is linebacker Junior Galette. Galette has 6 sacks so far on the season and has forced one fumble. Galette is New Orleans’s Bruce Irvin; a pass rush specialist who sees most of his playing time in third down situations. If Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch can move the ball effectively in early down situations Galette could become a non-factor much like how he was against Atlanta last Thursday night.
There are two other added elements to keep your eye on this week. The first of which is the weather. The temperature at kickoff is expected to be in the mid to low 30’s and the last forecast I saw calls for a 40 percent chance of snow showers. The last time the Seahawks played a primetime game in the snow was in 2006 and the Seahawks were able to run for 235 yards in that game against the Green Bay Packers. Although it is unlikely, if snow becomes a factor this week I give the edge to the Seahawks, as the Saints do a better job stopping the pass than the run. The other thing to keep an eye on this week is the noise factor. I always emphasize that the 12th Man seems to have a bigger impact in primetime games and this week the intensity inside CenturyLink Field will definitely be higher. To make matters better, the 12th Man will be attempting to regain their status as the world’s loudest fans as they try to once again break the Guinness World Record for “loudest roar at a sports stadium” as was announced earlier in the week. Bad weather and noise could be the ultimate recipe for the Saints to struggle so the Seahawks must take advantage of these circumstances.
Random Thoughts: The blue jersey/blue pants combination will be seen once again this week. I expect the Saints to wear black pants with their white jerseys… Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden have the call for ESPN this week… It would be cool to try to get a picture with the ESPN pregame crew consisting of Stuart Scott, Trent Dilfer, Steve Young, and Ray Lewis. I tried to get a picture with Bob Costas back in 2011 when Sunday Night Football came to town but I failed… Expect to see an iconic Seattle sports figure raise the 12th Man Flag. It has become customary for a well-known Seattle icon to raise the flag before bigger games… Ray Dalton will sing the national anthem before the game. I guess he’s taking a break from the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis world tour… One of the coolest things to see at a primetime Seahawks game is when the video board says “ESPN, can you hear us?” If you’re going to the game on Monday night you should know what to do when you see this… The giveaway this week is roller banners that say “LOUDER” along with a Seahawks beanie. Can I get a rally towel one time Seahawks?!?! I guess they are saving towels for our home playoff games… Ed Hochuli is the referee this week. In my opinion Hochuli is one of the best referees in the NFL. He does a really good job of explaining his calls… I wonder if the weather will prevent Hochuli from showing off his trademark muscles. We’ll see… It’s going to be a long pregame on Monday before the game. Good thing we’ll be down there before traffic really gets bad… I love late season primetime games because it is dark by the time kickoff rolls around… I love the cold weather, also… I’m sure a lot of memories of the last time we played the Saints are going to run through my brain on Monday. It is hard to rank that game but that playoff game is no doubt in my top 3 of sporting events I’ve ever been to.
Seahawks Playoff Outlook: The Seahawks currently hold a one game lead on New Orleans for the number one seed in the NFC playoffs and we hold a 3 game lead on San Francisco and Arizona for first place in the NFC West. If either Arizona or San Francisco loses on Sunday, the Seahawks can clinch a playoff berth with a win. Here are the matchups to keep an eye on this week that could affect the NFC playoff race. Teams to note are bolded.
Tampa Bay (3-8) at Carolina (8-3)
Chicago (6-5) at Minnesota (2-8-1)
Arizona (7-4) at Philadelphia (6-5)
St. Louis (5-6) at San Francisco (7-4)
Prediction: The way I see it, if a 7-9 Seahawks team can beat Drew Brees and the Saints, a 10-1, Super Bowl contending Seahawks team can surely beat Drew Brees and the Saints. With the Saints in town and a healthy, rested Seahawks offense a lot of people may think this game will be an offensive shootout much like what happened in the playoffs three years ago. I do not believe this game will be as high scoring and both defenses will make their presence known. The Seahawks will make one or two bigger plays than New Orleans this week and that will lift Seattle to victory. Marshawn Lynch and Golden Tate will score touchdowns for Seattle and linebacker K.J. Wright will intercept a Drew Brees pass in the fourth quarter that will seal the win. The Seahawks will go to 11-1 and will all but officially clinch the NFC West and home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Seahawks 27, Saints 17
Following Monday night’s game will start a very busy week on the blog. Check back Tuesday morning for a review of our game against the Saints. Enjoy the game everybody. Go Hawks!