Saints Defense of Super Bowl Begins in Seattle

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A year ago, the New Orleans Saints rode the
raucous enthusiasm of the Superdome through the NFC playoffs to the
first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
      Hope they waved goodbye to the Superdome on their way out of
town earlier this week. There's a good chance if these Saints are
going to get all the way back to the league's title game, they'll
be asked to do it on the road.
      The first stop on their postseason road trip begins Saturday in
Seattle, against the Seahawks in the first round of the NFC
playoffs.
      It doesn't quite seem right the defending champs and an 11-win
team this season would be asked to travel 2,000 miles on a short
week to face the first division champs in league history with a
losing record - and a team the Saints beat 34-19 in Week 11.
      "We all have a formula for getting in. We all know ahead of
time. No one was upset about it or complaining about it before the
start of the season," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think
that value of winning your division means something. Just as a
season ago when the postseason began, the teams that are in now
really are 0-0. That's just the truth. I think our players
understand that more than anything."
      But the task in front of the Saints as the No. 5 seed in the NFC
became seemingly more difficult as the week progressed.
      There's the second consecutive short week having played at
Atlanta on Dec. 27, losing at home to Tampa Bay last Sunday and
taking off Thursday after practice to make the five-hour flight to
Seattle. There's the Pacific Northwest weather, where rain and even
a chance of some light snow are being forecast for Saturday.
      There's the Saints history, which tells the story of a franchise
that has never won, let alone played well, away from the Superdome
in the playoffs. New Orleans lost 16-6 at Chicago in 1991; 34-16 at
Minnesota in 2001; and 39-14 at Chicago in the NFC championship
game four years ago.
      Then there's the injuries. Already this week, the Saints placed
their top two running backs - Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas - on
injured reserve. Only Reggie Bush and Julius Jones remain as the
Saints healthy running backs from the regular season.
      The injury concerns stretch beyond the backs. Marques Colston,
who had eight catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns in the first
meeting against Seattle, is listed as probable, but underwent knee
surgery less than two weeks ago. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is out,
thinning a secondary that allowed 366 yards passing to Seattle
earlier this year. Starting outside linebacker Danny Clark, tight
end Jimmy Graham and defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove are also
out.
      What first looked like a glorified scrimmage for the Saints to
get ready for the next round of the playoffs has turned, leaving
just the slightest bit of possibility to the thought: "Can Seattle
actually pull the upset?"
      "It's a home playoff game, it's going to be loud, and it is
going to be crazy," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "It's one
of the louder venues in the league. I think they showed how well
they can play last week."
      With Ivory and Thomas out, Bush is likely to get plenty of
touches. And his opportunity just so happens to be with Pete
Carroll on the other sideline in the fourth playoff game of his
career as a head coach.
      But this position Carroll finds himself in is unfamiliar - in
the postseason and a decided underdog.
      A large part of Carroll's success at Southern California was
rooted in coming through in the postseason. He was 7-2 in bowl
games with the Trojans, his only losses coming in his first season
(10-6 to Utah) and in the Trojans' title game loss to Vince Young
and Texas, 41-38.
      But "underdog" wasn't uttered this week around the Seahawks
practice facility.
      "It's kind of funny because Pete always says, 'Hey, I don't
care who they bring in here - they could bring in the world
champs!' And the irony is they are really bringing in the world
champs, so there you go," Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck
said. "But he has been saying that from day one, and he's been
saying it for practice even."
      A Seattle upset would be quite the big deal and at least silence
some of the criticism lobbed toward the Pacific Northwest after
Seattle won the NFC West with a 7-9 record. Even their own fans are
skeptical of what the Seahawks accomplished - as of Friday morning
there were still tickets available.
      Asked if the Seahawks needed to apologize for backing into the
postseason while 10-win teams like the New York Giants and Tampa
Bay have cleaned out their locker, Hasselbeck looked incredulous.
      "Apologize to who?" Hasselbeck said. "I'm not going to
apologize for that."
      If Seattle's going to have a chance to at least threaten the
Saints, they'll need another huge game from Hasselbeck, in what
could be his final home game with the Seahawks. Hasselbeck's 366
yards against the Saints was the fourth-best performance of his
career, but Seattle settled for four field goals when touchdowns
are required to keep up with the Saints offense.
      It'd also help if Seattle's defense could get a stop. Last time,
the Saints scored touchdowns on five straight possessions in the
second and third quarters and punted only once. Seattle did hold
St. Louis to a season low 184 yards last week in its playoff
clinching win, but what the Saints bring offensively is an entirely
different beast.
      "We're here, we've got our foot in the door, now it's time to
do something with it," Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch said.
"That was just the first step. Now we've got to put some things
together and make a run at the big show."
      
      (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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