Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wild Card Preview: Will the NFC South’s Second Best Beat the NFC Worst’s Best?

A year ago, the Black and Gold faithful were blue going into the divisional playoff game because the team lost their last three regular season games.

In 2011, the Saints themselves are black and blue going into the post-season’s first round after three starters were hurt in the regular season finale.

Unlike last season when they stormed into the second round of the playoffs as the conference’s top team with juggernaut offense and a ball-hawk secondary, the New Orleans Saints hobble into Seattle in 2011 as a competitive squad with a severely imbalanced offense and a defense that has shut down opponents through resilience instead of making highlight reel takeaways.

In terms of personnel, this season’s squad is practically the exact same team that won the Super Bowl but has played, in part due to necessity, a totally different style.

On paper, the Saints are a vastly superior team to the Seattle Seahawks, who have been derisively treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of playoff teams that somehow bumbled into a homefield game.

The Saints’ offense is 6th (372.5) in the NFL in total yards and 11th (24) in points scored per game. The Seahawks’ offense isn’t in the same league, 28th (297.8) in total yards and 23rd (19.4) in points scored per game.

The gulf between the teams is worse on the defensive side of the ball.

The New Orleans defense, arguably the strongpoint of the team in the 2010 season, ranks 4th (306.2) in yards allowed and 7th (19.2) points allowed per game. In contrast, Seattle’s “d” gets an “f”: 27th (368.6) in yards allowed and 25th (25.4) in points allowed.

The Saints should be able to do to the Seahawks in this playoff game what they did to the Arizona Cardinals in last season’s.

But then again a far less talented Cardinals squad than the one that played in the Superdome last January embarrassed the Saints in the 2010 regular season. The game doesn’t always play out the way it looks on paper.

The good news for the Saints is that many of their missing hands will be back. In his post-practice press conference, Saints head coach Sean Payton shared with the media that wide receiver Marques Colston and tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas were full. Though the Saints’ receiving corps is well-stocked, the tough to guard Colston has been quarterback Drew Brees’s favorite target since 2006.

Also with third-round draft pick Jimmy Graham not practicing after being injured against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, the return of the recuperating first and second string tight ends is a good sign and provides Brees with a plethora of options to spread the pigskin around.

The bad news for the Saints is that starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who injured a knee in the first quarter against Tampa Bay, did not practice, nor did linebacker Danny Clark, who’s having hamstring issues.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Saints has been at running back. The Saints have not established much of a ground game this season, mostly due to injuries that have resulted in five running backs being knocked out for the season, including the two most recent additions to the injured reserve list- Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas.

To supplement the depleted backfield, the Saints have re-signed DeShawn Wynn, who had been on the team earlier as a special teams player, and inked a running back with the last name Bell from the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad…but not the one most fans had hoped.

Joique Bell, a Division II star, has bounced around the NFL in 2010 with the Saints becoming his fourth employer after originally being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Buffalo Bills.

Though he has been on the active roster of the Eagles and Indianapolis Colts, Bell did not carry the ball once in the regular season. The Wayne State product played in four pre-season games, rushing for 152 yards on 27 carries (5.6 yards average) with two touchdowns. He did not fumble a single time.

Though behind running backs Reggie Bush and Julius Jones on the depth chart, it’s likely that Bell will see the field in some capacity, especially since Payton is wary about “overplaying” number twenty-five.

With the Saints running game largely grounded and the Seahawks’ defensive being particularly vulnerable to pass (27th in the league, giving up 249.6 yards per game), fans should expect an aerial circus from Brees & Co.

And with the limelight on him as the lead running back in a nationally televised game against the man who coached him at the institution of higher learning the NCAA forbids me from associating with him, Bush could put on the same show he pulled off against the Cardinals in the divisional playoff game.

Ideally, the Saints should put the Seahawks away quickly in order for Bell to get in some live-fire. I don’t know who you are Mr. Bell, but you’re about to get the audition of a lifetime on Saturday afternoon.

The earlier humiliation in the desert is proof that an upset can happen. Qwest Field is one of the toughest venues in the league because it’s one of the loudest, despite being an open-air stadium.

And while it’s unlikely even the most fervent blue and gray painted fan has booked a flight to north Texas in February, the Seahawks are playing for respect and to give some dignity to the 2010 NFC West Champions banner that will hang from the rafters of their stadium. Beating the defending World Champions when it matters most would certainly take some of the stench away from Seattle’s “dis-STINK-tion” as a 7-9 playoff team.

The Seattle offense is unimpressive so much so that their running game is actually worse than the Saints. Head coach Pete Carroll announced on Thursday that Matt Hasselbeck, who sat out the season finale against the Saint Louis Rams, will start on Saturday in lieu of Charlie Whitehurst, who guided the team to the division championship.

Hasselbeck has not been magical, completing about 60% of his passes while throwing five more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12). However, Hassebeck did have a good game statistically in a losing effort against the Saints in November, completing 32 of 44 passes for 366 yards and a touchdown.

The Seahawks’ defense is just as unlikely to pick off a quarterback as the Saints’ secondary (which ranks LAST!) and their front seven are about average in sacks but since the Saints’ offense is almost certainly going to be very pass heavy, the prospects for interceptions increase.

A pick-six or two by the Seahawks would fire up the crowd producing an environment conducive for mistakes by the Saints offensive line.

Another threat to the Saints is kick returner Leon Washington; if all possible, punter Tommy Morstead needs to boom as many of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

Turnovers and good field position courtesy of Washington are the foundation of a Seahawks upset while the Saints need only minimize mistakes and hope that the offensive line buys Brees enough time to spread the ball around to pick up the win.

In a match-up between two teams that both over-rely on passing, the Saints have a major advantage.

While a Two-Dat is very much in doubt; a “one-and-done” is equally unlikely.

What Says Vegas?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan chalks the Saints as a 10-point favorite. When the Saints last played the Seahawks, New Orleans won 34-19…IN the Superdome. Since then, Seattle has lost by double-digits to Kansas City, San Francisco, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

Normally I get a bit squeamish about dishing so many slices of cheese, especially on the road, but I think the Seahawks are going to play every bit like team that won its division with a losing record.
Give the points.

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