First Down/Fourth Down: Seahawks down Saints, advance to NFC title game
Jimmy Graham provided some pregame fireworks ahead of his team's playoff matchup with Seattle, as he mixed it up with Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin during warmups. And then he disappeared for the rest of the day.
There were a lot of factors at play in the Saints' inability to generate points Saturday -- a brilliant effort from Seattle's defense, two missed field goals, some very questionable play calling. But Graham has long been the Saints' equalizer, having scored 16 touchdowns this season, with 86 receptions. They needed him more than ever in this one, up against arguably the best secondary in football.
Graham was targeted six times. He caught one pass, a short gainer in the closing seconds.
Brees struggled in the elements throughout the game (more on that shortly), so the opportunities to find Graham were few and far behind. When Brees did look Graham's way, the Seahawks were all over the New Orleans tight end -- a fact highlighted best by Earl Thomas' flying pass defense on a third-down attempt.
The Saints found themselves in several other important third- and fourth-and-short situations, too, and Brees looked elsewhere on all of them.
More observations from the divisional round's opener:
• First Down: Bobby Wagner.
On a defense filled with rambunctious personalities, the second-year linebacker can slip under the radar a bit. But he put on display again Saturday why he's become an irreplaceable Seahawk. He'll even be forgiven for a rather unacceptable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third quarter, which took the Saints from a potential 3rd-and-15 and gave them an automatic first down. (Khiry Robinson appeared to turn the ball over with a fumble on that play, for what it's worth, but the officials ruled him down and there was no challenge issued.)
Earlier, Wagner almost single-handedly prevented the Saints from putting points on the board. On another 3rd-and-4 run, this time by Robinson from the Seattle 29, Wagner assisted on a tackle for no gain; on 4th-and-4, he made a leaping break up of Brees' pass attempt to Marques Colston.
• Fourth Down: Drew Brees ... and Sean Payton.
The Saints used two of their second-half timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties. They spent their third on a failed challenge of a Doug Baldwin catch. That's evidence enough of how out of sync Brees and Payton were on Saturday.
Brees had an opportunity to stifle the narrative that he's a far better QB at home than he is on the road -- even in victory last week at Philadelphia, Brees was up and down. Instead, he was unable to handle the noise or the conditions, with throw after throw (especially in the opening three quarters) sailing well off-target.
Payton's play calling hardly helped. Worst of all was a 3rd-and-15 screen pass with the Saints trailing by eight, seemingly out of field goal range and with the clock winding down. The wind was in New Orleans' face in the first and fourth quarters, which was a variable that had to factor in Payton's approach. It was clear from the start, too, that the Saints wanted to establish their run game and limit Seattle's possessions.
That gameplan backfired. It took into the fourth quarter for the Saints to find any sort of groove on offense, and it proved to be too little, too late.
• First Down: Rob Ryan.
One of the stories of this season has been the impact of Ryan on the Saints' once-embarrassing defense. That unit made incredible strides this season -- right up to and including Saturday, as it kept New Orleans in the game despite a lackluster showing from the offense.
The Seahawks' first points came after a shanked punt by the Saints. Their first touchdown happened only after Mark Ingram fumbled deep in his own territory. Even with the New Orleans offense gifting those points, Ryan managed to limit Russell Wilson's effectiveness long enough to give his team a chance. The Saints defense sharpened even more in the second half, as Wilson failed to complete a pass during the third quarter.
Seattle did finally come up with two big plays on offense: Baldwin's leaping grab on the sideline and a Marshawn Lynch touchdown run. Since the Saints offense pulled any safety net away from the defense, those breakthroughs were enough to seal the deal.
• Fourth Down: Percy Harvin's luck.
The Seahawks more or less waited all season for Harvin to get in the lineup -- he had to talk the team out of placing him on injured reserve so that he could attempt a playoff comeback. We may not see him again during the 2013 season after he left Saturday's game twice to undergo concussion testing.
The first injury, which occurred when the Saints' Rafael Bush nailed him on a defenseless-receiver play, was just his second snap of the afternoon. He returned to the game long enough to make an acrobatic 16-yard reception for a first down. But after being smashed to the turf trying to make a catch in the end zone, his day, and possibly his season, wrapped up.
• First Down: Marshawn Lynch.
The Saints probably would be fine if they never see Lynch again. Just a few seasons after his famous "Beast Mode" backbreaker against New Orleans, Lynch again punished the visitors. His 15-yard TD run through the arms of multiple defenders in the second quarter made it 13-0 Seattle; his 31-yard scamper with 2:48 left all but sealed the victory.
Lynch finished with two touchdowns and 140 yards rushing on 28 carries -- accounting for more than half of Seattle's 277 total yards.
• Fourth Down: The Seahawks' killer instinct.
Seattle did not hide during the second half the fact that it thought its defense could keep New Orleans from rallying. The Seahawks' play calling -- much like the Saints' approach, at least early -- dipped into ultra-conservative range. Because of that, a comfortable 16-0 lead nearly disintegrated, with New Orleans pulling to within eight and then threatening to drive for a tying score. The Seahawks need just one more win to reach the Super Bowl, and they'll host the NFC title game. They would be well-served to go for the throat should that chance present itself next weekend.