NFC playoff seeding is at stake in tonight’s game between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks, as the victor between 10-1 Seattle and 9-2 New Orleans will have a clear path toward the No. 1 seed and home field advantage until the Super Bowl. In the case of these two teams, playing home games is especially important, as Seattle is currently riding a franchise record 13-game winning streak at CenturyLink Field, while Saints quarterback Drew Brees owns a 122.2 passer rating in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, and an 89.7 rating outside of it. With huge stakes in the first matchup between the two teams since the legendary “Beast Quake” playoff game in January of 2011, here are three things each team must try to do to come away with the win.
Three keys for Seattle
1. Get off to a fast start
If it feels like it’s been forever since Seattle last played a game, it has. The Denver Broncos have played their entire three-game gauntlet against the Chiefs, Patriots, and Chiefs again since the last time the Seahawks stepped off the field on Nov. 17. Seattle has been an exceptional second half team this season but they could be in trouble if they show too much rust early, as the explosive Saints offense will be much more difficult to catch up to than the Buccaneers or the Texans. A fast start will help Seattle gain confidence and the huge edge that comes when their crowd is going berserk.
2. Utilize Percy Harvin
Percy Harvin’s unique and versatile skill set is an advantage in and of itself, but Seattle also has an edge thanks to the lack of film on him in a Seahawks uniform. After missing the first 10 games of the season recovering from hip surgery, Harvin was finally active in the game against the Vikings. He only touched the ball twice -- and both plays were spectacular -- so the Seahawks still haven’t revealed how they plan on playing the NFL’s version of a Wild Card.
3. Make big plays on defense
Winning the turnover battle is important in every game, but the Seahawks are particularly reliant on big plays from the defense. Wins over St. Louis and Houston came down to clutch moments late in the game and whenever Seattle's 12th ranked offense has needed to be bailed out, elite players like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas have stepped up. Tonight’s game could well hinge on a similar moment and without suspended cornerback Walter Thurmond, it’s even more imperative for the playmakers on Seattle’s defense to have strong individual efforts.
Three keys for New Orleans
1. Get after Russell Wilson
Seattle has shown few areas of vulnerability en route to their franchise-best 10-1 start, but one of them has been the pass protection along a banged-up offensive line. Although many starting O-linemen are returning to health, the Saints defense posses a formidable challenge, ranking fourth in the NFL in sacks with 37. If the Saints can get to second-year Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, they have an excellent chance of ending his undefeated record at CenturyLink Field.
2. Run the ball
The Saints offense is fueled by Drew Brees’ merciless aerial attack, but the Seahawks pass defense is ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed per game. That means New Orleans will have to rely on it’s running game more than usual, as Seattle’s rush defense is just mediocre. New Orleans has accumulated the third most rushing yards in the league over the past three weeks, so their recent success should give them confidence as they try to exploit one of the few areas of weakness in the Seahawks formidable defense.
3. Quiet the crowd
Seattle’s fans set a new world record for the loudest stadium earlier this season, a record they will attempt to reclaim from Chiefs fans tonight. The last time New Orleans played in Seattle, the crowd got so loud during Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown run (one of the most impressive plays in the history of the NFL), it actually registered as an earthquake on the richter scale. It’s obvious, then, that one of the most important things the Saints can do is minimize the deafening conditions with touchdowns, turnovers, and other big plays that suck the wind out of the crowd. If New Orleans can dial down the cacophony to just a dull roar, it may be their team's biggest accomplishment of the night.