(Reuters) – The New Orleans Saints snapped a road jinx with their playoff win last week in Philadelphia but face the NFL’s ultimate travel test in their divisional showdown against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.
The NFC’s top-seeded Seahawks, who have lost once in front of their deafening CenturyLink Field fans over the last two years, are fresh off a first-round bye and eager to take their initial postseason step toward a Super Bowl trip to New York.
Elusive second-year quarterback Russell Wilson will try to get the Seahawks’ offense back on track after an inconsistent 2-2 finish to the regular season that followed an 11-1 start by a team that led the National Football League in defense.
Cornerback Richard Sherman, who had eight interceptions and was named All-Pro for the second successive year, said the secret to success was blending talent with discipline.
“Nobody is worried about doing too much. Nobody is worried about playing out of their mind or playing crazy,” said Sherman, whose unit led the league in fewest points per game (14.4), fewest yards (273.6) and widest turnover margin (plus-20).
“Everybody is just doing their job. Once you get everybody playing on the same page and nobody playing selfish football, it becomes an unbelievable product.”
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for more than 5,000 yards for the third consecutive season, was stifled by the Seahawks in a 34-7 trouncing in Seattle last month.
But Brees benefited from a balanced attack in New Orleans’ 26-24 breakthrough victory over the Eagles in the first playoff road win for the Saints, who thrive at their Superdome home but must make their way on the road as a wild card team.
Running back Mark Ingram, playing in place of the sidelined Pierre Thomas, ran for 97 yards and a touchdown as the Saints rushed for a total of 185 yards.
If New Orleans (12-5), whose defense ranked fourth in fewest yards allowed, can continue to run the ball effectively that could open up throwing opportunities for Brees.
Despite limiting Brees to 147 passing yards last month for his lowest total in seven years, Seattle coach Pete Carroll has utmost respect for the Saints quarterback.
“He’s an incredible football player,” Carroll said about the Most Valuable Player in the Saints’ march to the Super Bowl title four years ago. “Historic numbers and accomplishments and there’s nothing that guy can’t do.”
The rushing game, spearheaded by rugged running back Marshawn Lynch, is a staple of Seattle’s attack and with a chilly rain in the forecast for Saturday, establishing the ground game could be a key for both teams.
Lynch ran for 1,257 yards, his second-best total, and a dozen touchdowns to match his career best.
Saints coach Sean Payton, who had to sit out a frustrating 2012 campaign (7-9) as part of the NFL punishment for the so-called bounty scandal, relishes the next challenge.
“This (Seattle) is a team that has been dominant all season,” said Payton. “They’re the number one seed. They’re unbelievably talented defensively.
“They’ve had one of those magical seasons and we have our work cut out for this one.”
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue)