Game Scout: Saints at Seahawks

The SportsXchange

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle - TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Erin Andrews

*Keys to the game: No one expects this to be a carbon copy of the Seahawks' 34-7 thrashing of the Saints on "Monday Night Football" in Seattle on Dec. 2. That game got out of hand early, was never a contest and both teams have gone through adjustments over the past five weeks. The one thing QB Drew Brees and the Saints can't get away from is the physical style of the Seahawks' press-man coverage being a difficult matchup. Brees doesn't enjoy great protection, so he relies heavily on shorter drops and quick passes that are difficult to complete against Seattle's cornerbacks. Flipping the script will require running the ball far better than the 3.4 yards per carry the Saints managed in the first meeting and keeping Brees out of the long passing downs that play into the hands of Seattle's deep group of pass rushers and what Brees himself described as a "crazy" atmosphere in Seattle.

Defensively, the Saints were burned by big plays in Seattle, and playing without sensational rookie S Kenny Vaccaro won't help. The Seahawks are concerned about a developing blueprint since the Dec. 2 game in which opponents are squeezing the interior running lanes to contain RB Marshawn Lynch, attacking QB Russell Wilson off the edges and daring Seattle's group of possession receivers to gain separation quickly off the line. If Lynch isn't able to at least churn up 3-4 yards per carry on first and second down, the Seahawks' offense typically stalls and is vulnerable to the pass rush. The lack of a consistent ground game and big, physical receivers also hampers Seattle heavily in the red zone.

*Matchup to watch - Saints TE Jimmy Graham vs. Seahawks OLB Malcolm Smith: In preparing for last month's game against the Saints, Seahawks OLB K.J. Wright pleaded with coach Pete Carroll for the assignment vs. Graham. The coaches poured over film of Wright in coverage against other tight ends and were convinced to give him the duty. The result? Graham was limited to three catches for 42 yards. Wright is out with a broken foot and Smith, while excellent against the run, isn't nearly as good in coverage. Carroll wouldn't tip his plan for handling Graham this time around, but the Saints' top playmaker figures to be a much bigger factor.

*Player spotlight - Seahawks WR Percy Harvin: Many of the issues outlined with Seattle's offense can be quickly mitigated if Harvin (hip) is able to play in just his second game of the season. If he's available, snaps will likely be limited, but Harvin's dynamic athleticism opens the playbook and forces defenses to think twice before playing zero coverage.

*Fast facts: No. 6 seeds have won five of the past seven meetings against No. 1 seeds in the Divisional Playoffs. ... In the last playoff meeting, a 41-36 Seahawks victory at home in 2011, Lynch had a 67-yard touchdown run nicknamed the "Beast Quake" after the crowd noise registered on a regional Richter scale.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Saints got over the playoff road hump in Philly and can play with a nothing-to-lose approach as heavy underdogs who were pummeled in Seattle five weeks ago. The Seahawks are hardly invincible with a scuffling offense, but the league's top-rated defense is a swarming turnover-piling machine at home.

*Our pick: Seahawks 24-23
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