Try as they might, the Saints had no answer for Russell Wilson. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
SEATTLE -- The last time the New Orleans Saints came to CenturyLink Field, they lost 41-36 to a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team in the wild-card round of the 2010 playoffs. In that game, running back Marshawn Lynch pulled off a 67-yard touchdown run that got the local fans hopped up enough to create a seismic event. With 3:22 left in the game. Lynch bounced off what seemed like the entire New Orleans defense, the "Beastquake" nickname was born, and the home-field advantage at CenturyLink grew in stature.
On Monday night, it happened to the Saints again -- same loss at "The Clink," same seismic event, same beatdown when it counted. Only this time, two things were different -- the game wasn't close at all (it was actually more lopsided than the 34-7 final might indicate), and it wasn't Lynch who defined things for the Seahawks this time. This time, it was second-year quarterback Russell Wilson who riddled New Orleans' defense in every possible way. It was also different in that this Seahawks defense did not in any way resemble the one that allowed 474 yards, 32 first downs, and 36 points to Drew Brees' offense back then. This time, it was 12 first downs, 188 total yards, and seven points in what can only be called a signature performance for a defense that was already among the league's best.
Brees' difficult day started early. Halfway through the first quarter, defensive end Cliff Avril broke through the back of the pocket, forced the ball out of Brees' hand, and watched as linemate Michael Bennett returned the fumble 22 yards for a touchdown. That score, according to the Seattle Times, created a magnitude 1 or 2 earthquake.
Here we go again.
Brees was atypically limited from front to back. The pressure created by Seattle's front affected his ability to make deep throws, and he had just a handful of those all night. As the game went on, Seattle started stacking the box in even the most obvious passing situations. Perhaps the signature play of this signature performance came with 12:23 left in the third quarter. The Saints had second-and-18 at their own nine-yard line, down 27-7, in a situation that screams "passing play." Seattle's defense responded by putting 10 defenders in the box anyway, and the flummoxed Saints were forced to call a time out.
"That we have trust. We have trust in our players," cornerback Richard Sherman told me when I asked him what that particular play signified. "We have trust in our scheme, and trust in the ability of our guys. We know what we're doing -- our coaches have 100 percent trust in the players and the scheme. They run a good scheme, and we attack. We played attack ball all day."
When you stick perhaps the game's best quarterback with what would be a gift-wrapped opportunity to make a play in the hands of lesser defenses and he can't pull the trigger, you know you've got something special. Brees tried eight passes 15 or more yards past the line of scrimmage on the night, and completed none of them, per ESPN's Stats & Info.
"They are very good," Brees said of that defense. "They don't have any weak links. They are very good up front, at the linebacker position, in the secondary. They put it all together and they play very well within their scheme. Obviously, they play extremely well at home, because they can thrive on that crowd noise, and an offense's inability to communicate, and all of those things. They deserve a lot of credit."
Safety Earl Thomas expected Brees to throw deep more often, based on a regular-season loss to the Saints at the Superdome on Nov. 21, 2010, when the Saints' quarterback threw for four touchdown passes in a 34-19 win. This time, Thomas knew what to look for.
"Actually, I was surprised, because in my rookie year ... that's why I was a little bit motivated here than in another game, because he got the better of me in my rookie year. So, I definitely had a chip on my shoulder to prove that I was a young boy back then, but I'm a grown man now."
Seattle's domination of the Saints' offense was even more impressive when you consider that starting cornerback Walter Thurmond was serving the first game of a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Backups Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane played like pros in Thurmond's stead, racking up key pass deflections and running down every one of New Orleans' complex formations and talented receivers.
"Yeah, Maxwell played a great game for us." Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. "Max has been doing it, that's not a surprise. I tried to stand up for him, that he's going to do okay, he's shown it, and he's played enough football. We know he can play the game, and he'll just get better with the terms and experience and all that. Jeremy Lane jumping out there for the first time, playing all that nickel stuff against some really good guys and good schemes, he did a terrific job. He's still a pup playing in that situation, but he came through really well."
As for Wilson, he easily outdueled his idol. While Brees completed 23 of 38 passes for 147 yards and one touchdown, Wilson completed 22 of 30 for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Moreover, he put up those numbers in a dizzying array of offensive formations -- everything from two-back Pistol to boot action to three-wide outside the numbers. An early deep pass to tight end Zach Miller came off run action, when Seattle's offensive line charged out to the left, and Wilson had the easy completion the other way. When the Saints tried man coverage on his deep receivers, Wilson killed them with fade routes that had the perfect combination of touch, timing, and arc.
"I texted Coach Carroll yesterday, and said, 'The way we practiced this week, it was the best week we've ever had.'" Wilson recalled. "That preparation was big, and I really think it showed up tonight."
In truth, nobody should be surprised by this. The Seahawks beat the Chicago Bears 23-17 in overtime one year ago Monday, and finished the 2012 regular season by outscoring their opponents 193-60 in their last five games. This season, they've outscored their opponents 340-186, and that +154 point differential is the NFL's best. They've lost two total games in the last calendar year -- one regular-season contest to the Colts, and one playoff game to the Falcons -- by a total of eight points. They finished the 2012 season ranked first in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted team efficiency metrics, and they are first now.
In other words, as great at the Saints may be, this should not be a complete shock. Seattle's dominance over the last year has been minimized in awareness because of the "Tiger Slam" aspect, but it's shown up on the field week after week.
Nobody had to convince the Saints, who slipped into an NFC South tie with the Carolina Panthers at 9-3. They face Carolina twice in the next three weeks -- meaning that not only did they lose hope for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they might also have to come in as a wild-card.
"Obviously, it's a difficult loss," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "We didn't do a lot of things well in that game. We'll have to come back on a short week now, and get ready to play another really good football team at home on Sunday. We have to do a better job as coaches, starting with me. There are too many things we didn't do or do well enough to give ourselves the opportunity to win. Credit Seattle, they made the plays they needed to and were certainly the better team tonight."
It was a fun night for the better team. Thomas and linebacker K.J. Wright were dancing in between plays with the knowledge that the road to the Super Bowl will almost certainly go through this winter nightmare-land. The Seahawks' crowd set yet another Guinness World Record with a decibel reading of 137.6, and the entire city sent a very definitive message to the rest of the NFC:
You don't want to play here, but you're going to have to if you want any part of a championship dream.