Seattle - There are no surprises on the New Orleans Saints' path to playoff advancement.
They knew it'd be difficult, even if they'd been able to win their way to the No. 1 seed and take home-field advantage. So having to win three playoff games on the road, for a franchise that hadn't won a road playoff game in its history entering this postseason, seemed particularly daunting.
But the Saints (12-5) beat the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia last Saturday. And that earned them a return trip to CenturyLink Field in Seattle, where they'll play the No. 1 seed Seahawks (13-3) in a divisional playoff game on Saturday at 3:35 p.m. CST.
Seattle beat the Saints 34-7 in a regular-season game at CenturyLink on Dec. 2, a game in which the Seahawks jumped to a 17-0, first-quarter lead and never looked back.
So if the Saints are going to advance to the NFC championship game next weekend, they again will have to do it the hard way, on the road, against a formidable opponent.
"We were just hoping for another opportunity to be able to go through there," quarterback Drew Brees said. "And we're getting that opportunity."
"It's not too often you get a second chance," running back Mark Ingram said. "We're all excited about it.
"After the game (in December), all of us were hoping that we'd have a chance to go back up there and see them again, and we got what we asked for. So we have to prepare hard and go out there and play our best game, because Seattle is a great team."
The Seahawks were convincing in every statistical way Dec. 2.
They held the Saints to 188 yards and rolled up 429. The Saints converted six of 15 third-down attempts; the Seahawks, seven of 14 overall, six of eight in the first half.
New Orleans averaged 3.7 yards per pass play while Seattle averaged 9.7. And that night, the Seahawk fans set a Guinness world record by making CenturyLink the loudest ever outdoor facility.
"Score points - you make plays, you score points, you get enough of a lead, that's how you take the crowd out of the game," Brees said.
"(Having already played there), I think that's important. You know what to expect, so as you visualize it, as you come up with your plan, you know how it's going to be."
It's going to be the Saints' offense playing against the league's best overall defense – No. 1 in scoring (14.4 points per game allowed), No. 1 against the pass (172 yards per game), No. 1 in total defense (273.6 yards per game) and No. 1 in turnovers forced (39).
And the Saints' defense will be looking for a way to slow down Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and ran eight times for a game-high 47 yards, in December.
"I think there are a number of things we've got to do better," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "Handling the early portion of the game – there's certain things in playoff football or, for that matter, just playing on the road, that you've got to do to give yourselves an opportunity. I think we're working hard to do that.
"It's always been a game of momentum swings and I think mentally, handling those momentum swings on the road becomes sometimes more challenging than at home. The turnovers play a big part. It's easy to say, 'Well, we can't turn the ball over.' We've got to look at what causes those things and that's pressure, that's ball security.
"If you took any (Saints) road win this year – you go to Chicago, there was a momentum swing, in Atlanta we had it early where they scored a touchdown and we had to overcome that – the same thing would be the case with any of those tough games where you're playing. You hit a back and forth and you've got to be able to respond."
Especially, the Saints understand they'll have to respond against the Seahawks.
"They did a lot of things well," Brees said. "They rushed the passer well, they covered well. At the end of the day, you're just like, 'Man, we didn't have any rhythm, didn't feel like we had many opportunities.'
"All of that is just managing the circumstances, managing the crowd noise, managing all that stuff. Finding ways to create rhythm within your gameplan, being good on first down, getting yourself in a third and manageable position where they can't just pin their ears back and come after you.
"As balanced as you can be, the better. And hopefully hit on some big plays, take advantage of opportunities. That's one thing that man coverage does give you – if you can get the ball in your guys' hands and make somebody miss, then you've got potential opportunities there."
The opportunities will be there, on the road. It'll be the hard way for New Orleans, nothing less than was expected.
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