The challenge goes from cold weather in Philadelphia to very wet weather this Saturday in Seattle for the New Orleans Saints.
The forecast for Saturday afternoon in Seattle calls for a temperature in the mid 40's with a 100 percent chance of rain and lots of it.
The last second Wild Card weekend win over the Eagles in freezing weather is now in the rearview mirror with a greater challenge straight ahead.
"Each stadium presents a different environment to some degree. For our team we have a lot of young players on this team. Going to Philadelphia is one thing. Going to Seattle is another," said Saints head coach Sean Payton.
How do you turn around a 27-point loss? On December 2, the Seahawks humbled the Saints 34-7 in a dominant performance at CenturyLink Field.
The Saints were held to season lows of seven points and 188 yards of offense. Their defense was gashed for 34 points. The Saints committed two turnovers, both by Drew Brees (fumble, interception), and Seattle had no giveaways.
This time around, Seattle is an 8 1/2-point favorite and understandably so.
In the first meeting, Russell Wilson had perhaps his best performance of the season, completing 22-of-30 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns, one each to Zach Miller, Doug Baldwin and Derrick Coleman.
Wilson finished with an amazing passer rating of 139.6. In the first half alone, Wilson was 14 of 19 for 226 yards and a rating of 148.1. He also rushed eight times for 47 yards. Wilson has 25 regular season wins in his first two seasons, the most ever by a second-year quarterback and he is 15-1 at home.
While Rob Ryan's defense has been superb all season long, it was torched by the Seahawks for 315 first-half yards, the most allowed by the Saints in a first half since 2005 against Minnesota. The Saints did contain Marshawn Lynch, holding him to 45 yards rushing on 16 carries. Seattle had 429 yards and basically played conservative after building a huge lead which kept the number from growing.
Seattle won time of possession, keeping the ball for 33:38 to just 26:22 for the Saints. The Seahawks had scoring drives of 11, 6, 10, 12 and 8 plays.
Michael Bennett had a 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the first quarter to give Seattle a 10-0 lead and the Saints were never in it after that.
It was a dominating performance by the Seahawks in all facets before a national television audience on Monday night. The loss snapped a nine-game Monday Night Football win streak for the Saints.
The Seattle defense crushed the Saints offense. Drew Brees was just 23-of-38 for 147 yards. Jimmy Graham was held to three catches for 42 yards. He was followed by K.J. Wright all over the field. Wright will not face the Saints this Saturday as he is still recovering from foot surgery. Darren Sproles led New Orleans with seven catches but had only 32 yards on those receptions. The seven points matched the fewest scored by the Saints since Sean Payton became coach of the Saints in 2006 and the 188 total yards were the fewest in his coaching tenure.
The fact that Brees was unable to take advantage of Seattle's depleted secondary in the first matchup is a concern in the second meeting. The Seahawks shut down the Saints without Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond but Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane played well in their places, displaying depth in the secondary. Now, the Seahawks have Thurmond, along with tackle Russell Okung back, along with Percy Harvin. All missed the first game with the Saints due to injuries.
Unlike at Philadelphia, the Saints could not get a running game going, rushing 17 times for 44 yards. Mark Ingram was the leading rusher with eight carries for 22 yards.
"That was a game we played not too long ago. This is a (Seattle) team that has been dominant all season. They're the number one seed. They're unbelievably talented defensively. Offensively they're coached very well. They're on a roll. They've had one of those magical seasons and we have our work cut out for this one," said Payton.
Depth in the secondary is a real concern for the Saints, with the injury to Keenan Lewis. We will likely not know until later in the week if Lewis can play. Of course, the Saints are already without Kenny Vaccaro, Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer. Having to play with Corey White, Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade is a huge concern. Leaving Roman Harper in coverage frequently is a concern as well.
Another concern is the loss of Parys Haralson, who is not likely to play in Seattle. One report has him out with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in the win at Philadelphia, leaving Will Herring as the next man up at outside linebacker, where the Saints are running out of players. Perhaps the Saints will use Harper in a hybrid role to replace Haralson, playing him close to the line of scrimmage.
Seattle had a bye week heading into the first meeting and it clearly benefited the Seahawks in preparation, execution and health. Since the win over the Saints, the Seattle offense has slowed a bit, averaging just 19.25 points over its last four games.
In those games, Wilson completed just 59-of-102 passes (57.8%) for 685 yards (171.25 avg.) with just four touchdowns and three interceptions. Wilson was sacked 14 times in those four games.
The question is obvious. Did the Seahawks peak against the Saints? Since then, they are 2-2. In losses to the Cardinals (17-10) and 49ers (19-17), the Seahawks defense allowed 139 yards rushing and 163 yards rushing, respectively. That is the panacea for the Saints. They must run the ball effectively to keep the pass rush off of Brees, control the football and keep the ball away from the Seattle offense.
"The familiarity there with both teams it is either going to come down to execution like it always does. We have to out execute them," said Saints tight end Ben Watson. "We are going to have a great plan going in, but when it comes down to playoff games, it comes down to two teams that are well-coached and talented teams and who can execute the best."
Brees has the playoff experience edge over Wilson, starting 10 playoff games and, of course, winning a Super Bowl with a true MVP performance.
The top-seeded Seahawks are a league-best 13-3, playing the toughest division in the NFL. The sixth-seeded Saints are a solid 12-5. The hope for the Saints is that Seattle is overconfident, based on the easy victory the first time around. Pete Carroll is trying to get his team's attention, telling them to forget about the first game, saying that there are no "automatics."
For what it is worth, No. 1 seeds are 7-9 in the divisional round over the last eight seasons. Additionally, over the past 10 years, the sixth-seed has beaten the top-seed five of eight times when they have met.
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