John Lopez: NFC Wild Card Report: Seahawks-Saints - Sports Illustrated

NFC Wild Card Report: Seahawks-Saints

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Quarterback: This was the defining game of Matt Hasselbeck's career. Simple as that. After 12 years of good numbers, much criticism and not a lot to show for his career, Hasselbeck channeled his inner-Joe Montana with accuracy, precision and an unflappable gutsy approach. He was marvelous, finishing 22-of-35 for 272 yards and four touchdowns. Most important: A young quarterback likely would not have had Hasselbeck's calm after a bad start. Grade: A+

Running Backs: The most surprising performance was punctuated by perhaps the most amazing run in NFL playoff history -- Marshawn Lynch's powerful, scintillating, game-clinching 67-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. Before Lynch's moment, the lowly Seahawks' running game still graded high, with Lynch and Justin Forsett continually coming up big. Afterward, it's a no-brainer. Grade: A

Receivers: Hasselbeck hit eight different targets on the night, consistently and clearly exploiting a vulnerable aspect of the Saints' secondary -- the double-move. Brandon Stokley was huge. Ben Obomanu came up big in key moments, although he had three potentially devastating drops. Mike Williams had tough drops, too. But the double-move was a key part of the game plan and the Seahawks exploited it nicely. Grade: B-

Offensive Line: Hasselbeck had all the time he wanted, especially in the second and third quarters. The Seahawks' line also showed its athleticism in several key moments, with a key part of the Seattle attack moving backs out in space and to the edge in the short passing game. Linemen consistently shuffled into position nicely. There were some tough moments late in the third and early in the fourth; but with the running game finally clicking behind a line that has seen 10 different starting combinations this season, this group deserves plenty of credit. Grade: B

Defensive Line: Talk about Lynch and Hasselbeck all you want, but if the Seahawks don't get pressure on Drew Brees with just a three-man rush on numerous occasions, they don't win this game. Raheem Brock, Brandon Mebane, Colin Cole and Chris Clemons all had big moments either sacking Brees, putting pressure on him or forcing incompletions. Grade: A

Linebackers: David Hawthorne was the surest tackler on the field not named Earl Thomas. He recovered an early fumble, flashed good closing speed and kept the crippled Saints running game at bay. There were a few glitches in underneath coverage, however, that Brees exploited with bit completions to tight ends and fullback Heath Evans. Grade: C

Defensive Backs: Earl Thomas was all over the field. You wouldn't think giving up 36 points and 404 passing yards would point to a great performance in the secondary. And it was not great. Still, the bend-but-don't-break zone served its purpose. There were enough key stops in the red zone and key plays to make the difference. Thomas had a huge stop to turn one fourth-quarter threat into a field goal and was the best tackler on the field -- for either team. Grade: B-

Special Teams: There was nothing spectacular here, but Leon Washington didn't put the ball on the ground and after a sluggish start the Seahawks always had the edge in field-position to start drives. Clutching the last-gasp onside attempt by the Saints clinched the game. Grade: C+

Coaching: Everything Hasselbeck did on the field, Pete Carroll and Co. did off it. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates was brilliant, start-to-finish. But this win was about Carroll's confidence, energy and refusal to blink in the face of the world champs. The Seahawks were not just prepared, but responded to adversity and had the perfect game plan on both sides of the ball. One more factor: Carroll spent almost every day Tweeting to the Seahawks' fans, imploring them to be as loud as ever. They were. Grade: A+

Quarterback: Brees was his usual remarkable self, passing for more than 400 yards. He converted key third downs late, except for one that could've led to the game-tying score (rather than a field goal). He spread the ball and used all his receivers, but was somewhat hamstrung by not having a running game. Grade: A-

Running Backs: They started with no Chris Ivory and no Pierre Thomas. They ended with no Reggie Bush (knee) and no Julius Jones, who was knocked loopy late in the game. That left DeShawn Wynn and virtually no chance. Too many third-and-shorts could not be converted. A bad, bad day ended with just 77 yardsrushing. Grade: D

Receivers: All day, Saints receivers did a great job adjusting to the Seahawks' zone defense, making crucial catches. Sure, they ultimately fell short, but the Saints took the lead early and came back late because of the sure hands of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore, among others. Grade: B

Offensive Line: From completely dominant to completely overmatched, the Saints' front five saw both in the upset loss. Early on, Brees could not have had more time to go through his reads and make throws. But especially in the second half, the Saints' offensive front could not convert short-yardage situations, couldn't pick up blitzes and gave up sacks and pressure, mostly to a three-man front. Grade: C-

Defensive Line: The Saints were flat-out pushed around all day, never getting significant pressure on Hasselbeck, giving up the third-and-short conversions and allowing Lynch and Forsett to run though tackles, with Lynch eventually coming up with the play of the day. Grade: D

Linebackers: Jonathan Vilma forced a key interception early, but Saints linebackers never covered the short passing game and missed too many tackles. Grade: C-

Defensive Backs: Jabari Greer's early interception was the club's highlight of the day. Without Malcolm Jenkins, the Saints' secondary was not itself. And never has a secondary seemed so incredibly susceptible to the double-moves the Seahawks consistently used with success. Grade: D-

Special Teams: The bright spot was kicking away from the explosive Washington and covering him when he did get his hands on the ball. Otherwise, the Saints never managed good field position, compounded their special-teams problems with penalties and could not come close to converting a key onside kick late. Grade: C-

Coaching: Sean Payton kept saying all the right things. His team would not be overconfident. His team would not take Seattle lightly. It sure looked like it, though, particularly defensively. Defensive coordinator Greg Williams' head had to be swimming. His defense looked confused too often. And what was Payton thinking, going for it down just 11, from his own 38-yard line and 3:51 still remaining in the third quarter. That gamble worked out, but it was a bad call. Grade: C-