When the NFL schedule was released last April, New Orleans Saints' fans quickly pointed to what figured to be one of their team's biggest challenges of the season -- a December trip to the Pacific Northwest to face the Seattle Seahawks.
Fans envisioned a tough battle against one of the preseason favorites to win the NFC title and possibly the Super Bowl. In addition, the Saints had to play in CenturyLink Field -- where the Seahawks almost never lose.
The NFL schedule-maker likely recognized the possible ramifications as well, penciling the game in for ESPN's Monday Night Football -- which proved to be a good move, at least on paper.
When the Saints (9-2) and Seahawks (10-1) get together Monday night, they could be playing for the all-important home-field advantage in the NFC even though each team will have four games remaining after they meet.
With a win, the Saints would hold the tie-breaking edge over the Seahawks if they both finish the regular season with identical records. The Seahawks, on the other hand, can all but wrap up the No. 1 seed if they come out of it with a virtual three-game lead over the Saints factoring in the tie-breaker.
The Seahawks have won six games in a row, just behind the Carolina Panthers' current seven-game winning streak, to take control in the NFC West -- which is one of the things that quickly catches the eye of Saints coach Sean Payton.
"We know we're playing an outstanding team that is playing at a high level in every phase of the game when you look at them," Payton said. "It will be a big test for us."
At the same time, Payton feels good about how his team is playing. After dropping a 26-20 decision to the New York Jets on Nov. 3, the Saints won three games in 12 days -- beating the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons to remain one game ahead of the surging Panthers in the NFC South race.
That tough three-game stretch showed Payton something that he didn't see in the disappointing road loss to the Jets -- which could pay dividends for them against the Seahawks.
"I think we've gotten a little bit better defending the run and a little bit better running the football," he said, noting the Saints played three games against three teams that are different offensively and defensively.
"We've been able to see that. I think we'll see some real good opponents coming up, starting with Seattle. From that standpoint, I'm encouraged."
NOTES: --DE Glenn Foster, who has a left knee injury, did not practice Thursday and his availability for Monday night's game at Seattle is unknown. ... CB Chris Carr was limited in Thursday's practice with hip and hamstring problems and his status for Monday night was not known. ... RG Jahri Evans, who missed the last game with an ankle injury, had full participation in practice Thursday and could play against the Seahawks. ... RB Darren Sproles participated fully in Thursday's practice after missing the last game with an ankle injury and could be ready for Monday's game. ... DE Tyrunn Walker, who returned to practice last week after a knee injury, could be active for the game with the Seahawks if Glenn Foster is out. ... LB Curtis Lofton has been limited in practice with hamstring and ankle problems, but should play Monday night. ... DE Cameron Jordan has recovered from a nagging ankle injury, but will play against the Seahawks.