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Friday, January 7, 2011

The Saints, the playoffs and exceeding expectations

Posted By on Fri, Jan 7, 2011 at 3:08 PM

The Saints look for Two Dat to start with a win at Seattle tomorrow.
  • The Saints look for Two Dat to start with a win at Seattle tomorrow.

The New Orleans Saints will officially begin their Super Bowl title defense with a trip to Seattle for their Divisional Round game against the Seahawks tomorrow. By most "experts" accounts, the Saints are going to win tomorrow's game. And, with Seattle making history as the first 7-9 playoff team while the Saints have gone 7-2 in their last nine games, a Who Dat win does seem like a lock.

But this is the playoffs and nobody really knows what will happen. Nothing matters now but the next game. The Saints' 34-19 plastering of Seattle in week 11 is irrelevant. So is the Seahawks ranking in the bottom third in offense and defense. After all, the San Diego Chargers led the league in both categories and where are they now? On the outside looking in.

The big question, right now, is really whether the Saints will be able to win tomorrow now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory have been put on injured reserve. Short answer: absolutely.

Make no mistake, Sean Payton and Drew Brees will have the Saints ready to go tomorrow. Seattle, which boasts one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL, will not be content to just lay down and have the Black and Gold march all over Qwest field. But this is also a team that had to muster up a phenomenal defensive performance just beat the Rams to make it in to the playoffs less than a week ago. The Seahawks will not beat the Saints with grit and hard work.

But there is still a way that the Saints could lose this game (however unlikely). And here are just a few things that could lead to a Saints' loss to mull over before we look fantasize about a rubber match against Atlanta in the second round:

Matt Hasselbeck — After a lot of uncertainty this week, the Seahawks confirmed that Hasselbeck will be their starter tomorrow. This is troublesome mostly because, back in November, Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in the Superdome. Hasselbeck has played in a Super Bowl and still has the ability to lead his team efficiently down field. If he gets hot and puts the Saints' defense on its heels, we could be headed for trouble.

The Saints running game (or lack thereof) — In all honesty, how much faith do you have that New Orleans will be able to establish a running game tomorrow with Reggie Bush and Julius Jones in the backfield? Bush, as everyone by now knows, serves the Saints best as a decoy, on screen plays or in the flat. He's not going to pound the ball for yards when you most need it. Jones, who was cut by Seattle after two games, has averaged a whopping 19.3 yards a game for the Saints. With such a pass-happy offense, it wouldn't be a strange sight if Drew Brees drops back to pass close to 50 times tomorrow. Which leads us to...

Drew Brees throwing an interception — Brees has posted a career-high in interceptions and tied an NFL record for most consecutive games with an interception. Remember that glorious fourth-quarter drive with less than four minutes to go to beat the Falcons on Monday Night? Do you also remember the two interceptions he threw on consecutive drives before the game-winner? Drew has made some very questionable decision making this season that has led to untimely turnovers. In the playoffs, the margin for error is razor thin and a game could turn on a bad decision from the usually-ultra-efficient Brees. And with no running game, there's more pressure on him.

Injuries — Aside from Ivory and Thomas, Malcolm Jenkins, Jimmy Graham, Anthony Hargrove and Danny Clark are all missing out tomorrow's game with injury. That weakens the Saints' defense while giving Brees less targets to work with. On paper, the Saints remain a better team than the Seahawks. But with Jenkins and Hargrove out, the defense will be stretched a bit and having to compensate in the secondary (which, as noted, Hasselbeck has the ability to skewer). Brees, having no run game, will rely mostly on his arm and may press possibly leading to (as noted above) a costly turnover.

Qwest Field — It's one of the loudest outdoor stadiums in the league and the forecast tomorrow's game is cold and rainy. Unless something miraculous happens, the Saints will not host a playoff game this year. Does anyone think that the crowd at the Superdome didn't give New Orleans at least some advantage last year? The Saints have come out against open-air teams and played admirably (most notably against a much better Ravens team just a few weeks ago). But you can't overlook the fact that tomorrow's game will likely be a sloppy one on a hostile field. A wet ball tends to lead to fumbles, dropped and deflected passes and all kinds of chaos. The Saints will have to overcome it all, in one of the noisiest places on the planet, if they want to win.

Expectations — Last year, despite grabbing the No. 1 overall seed and home field advantage, no one really expected the Saints to win the Super Bowl. You just couldn't when you looked at their history. But this year is different. The Saints have won it all and, as noted above, hardly anyone is picking them to lose this game. How will that affect the players' mentality going forward? What about Payton's? What metaphorical motivation will he use to light a fire under his players?

It's the NFL Playoffs — Seriously, anything can happen. Last year, the Saints won the Super Bowl. This year, the could lose to Seattle. You just have to accept the possibility.

All that said, though, I'd pick New Orleans in a rout. Two Dat starts now!

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