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Seattle's D stops Saints again, as team sets sights on possible Super Bowl berth

Believe it or not, Robert Meachem (17) wound up with this ball. Believe it or not, Robert Meachem (17) wound up with this ball. (John Froschauer/AP)

SEATTLE -- Pete Carroll wants to have a balanced football team. He wants to live equally by the run and the pass, and he wants to stop those things equally in his opponents. Similarly, the Seahawks' head coach would like to stun his team's opponents with an equal portion of offense and defense.

It's a nice notion, but let's be real about it. If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl this year, it will be on the shoulders of a defense that is just about impossible to deal with when firing on all cylinders. And in Seattle's 23-15 divisional round win over the New Orleans Saints, it was Carroll's defense that unquestionably ruled the day. Quarterback Russell Wilson completed nine passes in 18 attempts for 103 yards and no touchdowns -- and the Seahawks still won. That Seattle defense gave up a crazy 52-yard completion from Drew Brees to Robert Meachem in the fourth quarter that was as weird as anything Carroll could remember as it bounced off two Seattle defenders and into Meachem's hands -- and the Seahawks still won. Brees finished the day with 309 passing yards -- exactly three times more than Wilson -- and the Seahawks still won.

MORE COVERAGE: Lynch's loud statement Best, worst from game | Schedule, analysis

They won because Brees could do little outside of that one fluke play and a few great passes late in the game. They won because the Saints were only able to convert three of their 12 third-down attempts, and one of their three fourth-down tries. They won because despite all the talk about how tight end Jimmy Graham was going to take revenge for the three-catch game he had against this same defense when the Seahawks beat the Saints 34-7 on Dec. 2, Graham was rendered invisible. Brees' most productive receiver caught exactly one pass for eight yards on six targets.

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But perhaps most of all, the Seahawks won this game because Graham was mouthing off with several Seahawks players hours before the game even started -- and Seattle's defenders seemed to see it as a lark. They weren't affected at all -- they stayed in their lanes and stayed with their games, and ended New Orleans' season with several well-placed body blows.

"You come into a doghouse, and start talking about dogs, you're gonna have a long day," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said about those pregame incidents. "There was a lot of stuff said before the game -- a lot of gibberish -- but that's how it is. The playoffs are going to be like that. Everybody's going to talk, but it's all respect in the end."

In the end, Sherman was more worried about containing all of Brees' targets, not just his tight end. And that was a valid strategy. In 2013, Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history to complete at least 70 passes to four different receivers in the same season.

"We weren't focused on him," Sherman said of Graham. "We know that Drew Brees doesn't care who he goes to in crucial situations -- who he dinks and dunks to. We focused on everybody -- we focused on the group. It was a total group effort by the entire defense, and that's how we did it."

Marshawn Lynch stomped the Saints into submission. Marshawn Lynch stomped the Saints into submission. (John Froschauer/AP)

On offense, Seattle's story was primarily told by two players: running back Marshawn Lynch, who gained 140 yards and scored two touchdowns on 28 carries; and receiver Percy Harvin, who started his second game of the season after missing most of his first campaign in Seattle with hip injuries. Lynch defined the Seahawks offense as he generally does, and ended a streak of six games in which he did not gain 100 yards. Lynch's second touchdown -- a 32-yarder -- came with 2:40 left in the game, it put the final result on the books, and with a stiff-arm to cornerback Keenan Lewis, it had enough characteristics of his "Beast Mode" run in the 2010 playoffs to have Carroll calling it "Beast Mode II."

"I think it's pretty much the same as always," Carroll said of Lynch. "He battles every week, and when you give him a chance, he makes plays. He's had a consistent run for us -- I saw a stat the other day that it was three straight 1,000-yard years with 10-plus touchdowns. You have to love his last touchdown run -- it was a cool way to end that game and give us the chance  and the score we needed to put them away."

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Harvin's day ended earlier than he would have liked. He managed to get back in the game after an early collision with Saints safety Rafael Bush had him looking woozy. However, an incomplete pass from Wilson in the second quarter led to a smackdown from Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, and Harvin's day was officially done.

"The poor kid," Carroll said. "He finally gets to play, and he banged his head against the turf real hard. He was OK the first time, but the second one really rocked him. He was battling, did a good job, and gave us a little spark."

Harvin did do that in short spaces, and that was important, because Seattle's other receivers really struggled to gain separation from New Orleans' defenders. Were it not for the 25-yard pass to Doug Baldwin with 2:57 left in the fourth quarter, Wilson would have either won a playoff game without throwing for 100 yards ... or not won the game at all. That Baldwin catch set up "Beast Mode II" on the very next play. The Saints not only scored a touchdown on their next drive, but also managed to recover the subsequent onside kick. They were driving down the field needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the game, and with the addition or subtraction of a few close plays, this game could have turned in some very weird ways. This was not the blowout that began December, and for all the talk about Seattle's alleged domination at home, this was closer to a loss than anyone on the home team might like to admit.

Linebacker Bobby Wagner enjoys the moment with fans. Linebacker Bobby Wagner enjoys the moment with fans. (Doug Farrar/SI)

Until the defense stepped in. The Saints blew all their timeouts, and receiver Marques Colston ended the game with an illegal forward pass. In the end, as much as Brees was game to make this interesting, he ran out of oxygen in the same ways that most teams who play this defense tend to do.

"Our guys are tough to go against," Carroll said when I asked him how it felt to keep such an impressive offense under control twice in such a short space of time. "That's a tough group. Danny's [defensive coordinator Dan Quinn] has got us really fundamentally sound, and we just don't break. We force you to keep working at it and working at it. You'll notice that they got yards at times, but we came up and got our stops. We played very well on third down today and we had a couple of really crucial fourth-down stops. They were aggressive in going for it, and our guys were able to make the plays. There's really no weakness on this defense at this time -- it's really stout. We didn't play the run as well as we have been because we didn't tackle as well as we have been. We'll figure that out. Maybe we need live tackling, I don't know. But I just think it's a tough group in all areas. We've got playmakers at every turn, and that's what we're relying on."

Now, the Seahawks sit and wait to find out who will win Sunday's game between the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers for the "honor" of coming up to the CLink to try to make it to the Super Bowl. Seattle beat Carolina 12-7 in Week 1, and it split its series with the 49ers.

When asked about the specter of the opponent, Sherman was simple and succinct in his response: Bring it.

"We have no preference -- we'll see who makes it. Whoever it is will be a deserving opponent, and we'll be happy to see him. Carolina said they were going to see us in late January, and they have a chance. Steve Smith came up to us after the game and said, 'See you all in January,' and here we are."

Here they are, indeed. With defense in the lead, and with attitude to spare.

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