"The separation is in the preparation."
Russell Wilson says it all the time. And the Seahawks proved it Monday night in a shockingly dominant, playoff-clinching, 34-7 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Last week, coach Pete Carroll said he felt like his finally healthy team was practicing as well as it did at the end of the 2012 season, when it rattled off five straight wins by an average score of 38-12.
Wilson agreed. He even sent a text to Carroll over the weekend saying, "The way we practiced this week was the best week we’ve ever had."
"That preparation was big. I really think it showed up tonight," Wilson said after the nearly perfect performance by the Hawks in a game that had major implications for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was held to his worst passing total since 2006, agreed that the Seahawks were extremely well prepared.
It showed on both sides of the ball.
Wilson and the offense were ready for Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's blitzes, and Wilson beat them for two huge pass plays in the first half -- a 60-yard gain to tight end Zach Miller on third-and-1 in the first quarter and a 52-yard throw to Doug Baldwin on third-and-3 in the second quarter. The Hawks scored 10 points on those drives.
"We wanted to be great against the blitz," Wilson said. "We knew that their defensive coordinator is a great defensive coordinator. We knew that they were going to bring some pressure. We like the sense of pressure, because there is a lot of green grass behind it, so if we can capitalize on those plays …"
The Hawks had practiced audibles against the Saints' cover-0 blitz, and the preparation sure paid off as Wilson went 6 for 6 for 116 yards and a TD (and a perfect 158.3 passer rating) vs. the blitz.
Wilson was all over his audibles, too, especially on the pass to Baldwin.
"He saw it (the blitz) coming, and he checked off to it," Carroll said. "Then he changes the route and the protection and then makes the great throw, and we get the great catch, too. … He saw it, executed it absolutely perfectly, and we got a big play out of it."
The Hawks picked up the blitz perfectly on that play -- Wilson was not hit -- and they were better at it all game than they have been all season. That fact was not lost on Wilson, who was sacked just once Monday and has been sacked just three times in the last four games.
"The offensive line is truly doing a great job of protecting me right now," Wilson said. "To have all of those guys back -- to have Russell Okung back, our Pro Bowl left tackle; to have Max Unger back, our Pro Bowl center; to have Breno (Giacomini) back too, to protect my right side -- is a huge difference maker for us."
The defense also made a huge difference.
The big challenge was stopping Brees and a passing offense that ranked second in the NFL and had thrown for over 200 yards in an NFL-record 43 straight games. They were averaging 317 passing yards and 27.7 points per game.
The tall order was trying to stop tight end Jimmy Graham, who has six 100-yard games this season.
Linebackers coach Ken Norton convinced Carroll last week that K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin could handle Graham. And they did. Brees threw to Graham nine times, but they hooked up just three times for 42 yards and a short touchdown.
The Hawks, missing their Nos. 2 and 3 cornerbacks, held Brees to just 147 passing yards -- stopping that streak.
“We just stayed within ourselves and did what we had been doing,” Carroll told 710 ESPN on Tuesday. “We played three-deep zone and our man-to-man stuff just the way we wanted to do it. The coaches showed me that the matchups were going to work. We didn’t have to do special stuff — we just played football the way we like to.”
OTHER HAWK TALK
**The Seahawks continue to finish the first half in style. After struggling in that area over the first half of the season, the Hawks have scored touchdowns in the final two minutes of their last four games. Wilson hit Baldwin on a 4-yard pass with 13 seconds left vs. the Saints.
**Baldwin caught four passes (in five targets) for 77 yards and the end-of-half TD. He is looking like former Pro Bowl Seahawk Brian Blades in more than just his No. 89 jersey number. He has caught a TD pass in three of the past four games and now has 40 catches for 663 yards and four scores overall. He's on pace to eclipse his rookie totals of 51-788-4.
**Miller led the team with five catches for 86 yards and the score. The Hawks moved him around all game -- his eight targets came against seven Saints defenders. The catches matched a season high (he also caught five with a TD at Arizona) and the yards were a season best. After not being thrown to at all in Atlanta, he has 13 targets in the past two games, with nine catches for 155 yards and a TD. Just like late last season, Wilson suddenly has rediscovered Miller.
**Wright had perhaps his best game of the season and drew high praise from Carroll. He made six tackles, including one for loss, and knocked away a pass. Wright gave up catches on six of eight targets, but the Saints gained just 23 yards. He was all over quick RB Darren Sproles on screen passes. "K.J. Wright had a great football game and did stuff all night long, and he had a lot of matchups and a lot of responsibility for the backs and the tight end," Carroll said. "A bunch of guys played well, but he jumped out."
**LB Bobby Wagner led the team with 11 tackles and also had a pass deflection, a continuation of his solid play since recovering from a sprained ankle. He had nine tackles in each of the previous two games, at Atlanta and vs. Minnesota. He also picked off a pass vs. the Vikings.
**DE Cliff Avril added yet another strip sack to his resume as he knocked the ball from Brees' grasp and into the arms of Michael Bennett, who rumbled 22 yards for a touchdown. Avril has 7.5 sacks, and the Hawks have to be happy they have him signed for another season. He also has $700,000 in incentives based on sacks, per NFL salary information expert Brian McIntyre.
**Bennett's touchdown was the first of his career, and he also pressured Brees three times and was in on a couple of tackles. He remains a must-sign for the Hawks after this season.
**Meanwhile, DE Chris Clemons continues to melt into obscurity. He had just one pressure in 26 rushes, per Pro Football Focus, although he dropped into coverage a number of times as well. It certainly is looking like Clemons is in his last season with the Hawks.
**CB Byron Maxwell was under the microscope all week after news that Walter Thurmond had been suspended. He played an excellent game, giving up one reception for 20 yards on three targets. He knocked down the two other passes, including one in the end zone. The former sixth-round pick finally has stayed healthy and is showing what he can do. He is signed through 2014.
"Maxwell played a great game for us," Carroll said. "Max’s been doing it; that’s not a surprise. I tried to stand up for him, that he’s going to do OK. He's shown us, and he’s played enough football. We know that he can play the game, and he’ll just get better with the terms and experience and all that."
**CB Jeremy Lane was the third corner while still performing all of his special-teams duties. He came up with a big block to help Bennett get into the end zone. "Jeremy Lane jumping out there for the first time, playing all that nickel stuff against some really good guys and good schemes, he did a terrific job," Carroll said of the second-year player. "He’s a great athlete in there, but he’s still a pup playing in that situation; came through really well."
**In the last six games, the Hawks have converted 49.3 percent of their third downs (that includes 2 for 11 in the stinker at St. Louis). They rank ninth overall at 40.5 percent -- a nice recovery after they converted just 32 percent over their first six games.
**Since putting the ball on the ground three times (losing two) at Arizona in Week 7, Wilson has not fumbled once (five games).
**Wilson was the leading rusher in the game. His 47 yards (on eight carries) were more than the Saints had (44 on 17 runs).
**It's a good thing penalties largely do not affect the Seahawks. They had eight for 66 yards and are second in the league with 95 for 881 yards. That bodes well if the Super Bowl is again weighted against them: Unlike Mike Holmgren's 2005 team, they can overcome them.