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Seattle Seahawks lean on defense, Lynch to power past Saints 23-15

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The Seattle Seahawks have a very simple formula for success: Suffocating defense + grind-it-out offense x big plays = Victory. It’s a winning equation, even in the playoffs.

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Once again anchored by a stellar performance by the defense and a team playoff record 140 rushing yards from running back Marshawn Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks overcame a bumpy second half to defeat the New Orleans Saints 23-15 and advance to the third Conference Championship game appearance in franchise history. The Seahawks will face a familiar foe for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVIII: their NFC West rival, the San Francisco 49ers.

Much like their Dec. 2 win over New Orleans, Seattle got out to a fast start, aided by turnovers. Their first two Seahawks drives resulted in Steven Hauschka field goals and on the first play of the second quarter, Seattle’s Michael Bennett forced and recovered a fumble by Saints running back Mark Ingram. Two plays later, Lynch ran for the first of two touchdowns, giving Seattle a 13-0 lead. The Seahawks tacked on another field goal after a long 12-play drive shortly before halftime to take a commanding 16-0 lead heading into the break.

However, the Saints defense came to life in the second half to create problems for the Seahawks offense. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was held to a career-low 103 yards passing, and started the second half missing on five of his first six pass attempts.

Meanwhile, Saints quarterback Drew Brees finally started finding some rhythm in the 3rd quarter, after being held to just 34 yards passing in the first 30 minutes, his lowest total in a half since signing with the Saints. New Orleans finally got on the board with a nine-play, 74 yard touchdown drive early in the 4th quarter quarter and moved within one score on a successful two-point conversion. The Saints missed out on a great opportunity a bit later, when a tipped ball caromed to Robert Meachem and set up the Saints deep inside Seattle territory. But the kicking issues that have plagued New Orleans recently once again haunted them, as newly signed kicker Shayne Graham badly shanked a 48-yard field goal attempt, his second miss of the game.

On the ensuing series, Seattle flashed the big-play offense that had gone missing after the first half. On a third-and-three play, Wilson threw a terrific touch pass to receiver Doug Baldwin, who made a great effort to get down in-bounds and keep the drive alive. On the next play, Lynch appeared to put the game away on a run Seahawks fans are dubbing “Beast Mode II,” a sequel to his unforgettable run against the Saints in the 2010 playoffs. Breaking to the outside and again showcasing his devastating stiff-arm, Lynch’s 31-yard TD run was the biggest play of the game and put Seattle up 23-8.

Yet credit the Saints for fighting hard. They put together a touchdown drive to cut Seattle’s lead to eight, then recovered the onside kick for one last chance with :24 seconds remaining. On the game’s final play, Saints receiver Marques Colston caught the ball near the sideline but made an illegal forward pass across the field on a lateral attempt, ending the game.

It wasn’t easy and it definitely wasn’t pretty, but that’s been the story for many of the Seahawks’ wins this season. Aside from Wilson’s poor performance, the victory was characteristic of Seattle’s identity: they forced turnovers, shut down the Saints best receiver in tight end Jimmy Graham (who was held without a single catch until New Orleans’ final desperation drive), and got a few big plays from the offense and Marshawn Lynch when it counted.

Even with a familiar opponent coming to town on Sunday, don’t expect the Seahawks to change the formula.

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