Breaking down the NFC wild-card battle, Saints at Seahawks, Saturday, 4:30 ET, NBC
1. The health of the Saints. New Orleans' injury report is enough to make coach Sean Payton cringe. Leading rushers Chris Ivory (foot) and Pierre Thomas (ankle) were placed on injured reserve this week, and starting safety Malcom Jenkins (knee) and tight-end receiving threats Jimmy Graham (ankle) and Jeremy Shockey (groin) were among a notable group of players who were limited in practice or did not work at all as of Wednesday.
The loss of Ivory and Thomas could be critical because they were the Saints' only two rushers to gain more than 200 yards this year. The pair accounted for 78 percent of the team's rushing touchdowns (seven) and 65 percent of its rushing yards (985). They also were the only consistent between-the-tackles, physical runners.
"That's tough," QB Drew Brees said of losing them. "You can't deny that. Just because of the physical presence they bring and obviously their productivity."
It'll be interesting to see how their absences affect Payton's play-calling. No team had a bigger run-to-pass discrepancy than the Saints. They had 307 more passes than runs, and it's possible Payton might lean even more heavily on Brees, who threw for 382 yards and four scores (with two picks) in a 34-19 win over the Seahawks in November. Reggie Bush shouldered more of the running load last week with Ivory and Thomas out, but he's a perimeter/space player and has looked timid at times since returning from a broken leg. Maybe it means more carries for Julius Jones, who lost a fumble near the goal line last week.
2. Seattle's QB situation. Coach Pete Carroll is playing coy with who will start Saturday. Matt Hasselbeck, the longtime incumbent, missed last week's playoff-clinching 16-6 win over St. Louis with a hip injury, but said afterward that he expects to play -- and start -- against the Saints. Charlie Whitehurst was solid in his place, but the longtime backup has only two career starts and has never played in the postseason. Hasselbeck has won his last four playoff starts at home.
So, barring a setback, look for Hasselbeck to take the field Saturday. (UPDATE, Thurs., 4:16 p.m.: Hasselbeck named starter.) He not only has experience going for him, but also his most productive passing games over the past six seasons have come against the Saints, including a 366-yard outing in a 34-19 November loss at the Superdome. He also threw for 362 against them in 2007.
Saints linebacker Scott Shanle pooh-poohed the Seahawks' offensive production in the November game, telling reporters that New Orleans was basically milking a 34-16 third-quarter lead. "The one thing I remember about that game is we had gotten up and it was really a two-minute mode for a good portion of the second half," he said. "We were in a lot of conservative defenses, not bringing a whole lot of pressure and playing a lot of man. A lot of those yards were check-down yardage."
3. The Seahawks defense. The unit went through a horrid nine-game stretch late in the year, surrendering at least 33 points seven times and 40 or more twice. Will that unit show up Saturday, or will it be the one that completely shut down the Rams last weekend, limiting them to only two third-down conversions and holding them to 10 possessions of four plays or fewer, including seven three-and-outs? It also surrendered just six points, which matched St. Louis' season low.
Carroll admits that at times his team looked like it "didn't have a clue" during the skid. Last weekend it was focused, disciplined and completely in sync. It'll take another such effort to slow the Saints, who burned them for 494 yards in November.
One of the keys will be how Seattle deals with New Orleans' vertical passing game. The Saints tied for fifth with 10 scoring passes of at least 20 yards, while the Seahawks allowed more completions of 20 yards or longer than every team but one, including a league-high 14 touchdowns.
That's where Seattle's renowned 12th Man could come into play. Qwest Field is one of the league's loudest open-air stadiums, and when the crowd is rocking, visiting teams often rely on silent counts. That gives the defensive line a head start at the snap of the ball. And the more pressure Seattle can apply, the better its chances of disrupting Brees and the Saints' downfield passing game.
The oddsmaker give the Seahawks no chance. They installed them not only as 10 1/2-point underdogs to win the game, but 100-1 'dogs to win the Super Bowl. No other team is worse than 18-1. But this game will be closer than people think. The Saints are banged up, have to travel cross-country on a short week, have never won a playoff game on the road, and likely will be playing in rain and cold, not the controlled conditions of the Superdome. Still, the Seahawks' struggles to score touchdowns will result in a New Orleans victory. Saints 20, Seahawks 13.