The New Orleans Saints players and coaches aren’t playing the speculation game.
They have no control over which team the Saints(13-3) will play in their Divisional playoff game Jan. 13 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; all that the NFC’s No. 1 seed has been able to do this week is brush up on the areas it has determined could use revisiting and fine-tuning.
But that doesn’t prevent the rest of us from at least taking a peek ahead at New Orleans’ three possible opponents.
No. 4 seed Dallas: The NFC East Division champions, and one of three teams to beat the Saints (13-10, on Nov. 29 in AT&T Stadium) during the regular season. Dallas (10-6) won seven of its last eight regular-season games to win its division for the third time in the last five seasons, and it used a bruising running game (Ezekiel Elliott ran for a league-high 1,434 yards) and stingy defense (20.2 points and 329.2 yards per game allowed, sixth and seventh fewest in the league, respectively). Dallas held the Saints to 176 yards, 111 passing, and stopped the Saints eight of 11 times on third down. The offense got more balanced after the trade for receiver Amari Cooper; in six games with the Raiders, he caught 22 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown and in nine games with the Cowboys, Cooper caught 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns. He had a 180-yard, two-touchdown game and a 217-yard, three-touchdown game for Dallas. And as a division winner, the Cowboys earned a home playoff game. But it doesn’t figure to be easy, because its opponent is…
No. 5 seed Seattle: These are not the Legion of Boom Seahawks. They no longer have cornerback Richard Sherman (released, signed with San Francisco) or safety Kam Chancellor (retired) on the roster, and safety Earl Thomas suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game of the season. But Seattle (10-6) retooled on the fly and earned a Wild Card spot. The Seahawks beat Dallas 24-13 during the regular season in a home game at Centurylink Field, and won six of their last seven games to take the No. 5 seed. The big difference between this season and the previous two or three? Seattle can run the ball, and did it to the tune of a league-leading 160 yards per game, and 4.8 yards per carry, during the regular season. Dallas doesn’t allow much against the run, but Seattle also still has a former Super Bowl winner at quarterback. Russell Wilson passed for 3,448 yards and 35 touchdowns, with seven interceptions; only Aaron Rodgers (two) and Drew Brees (five) threw fewer interceptions. And defensively, while the LOB no longer exists, linebacker Bobby Wagner (138 tackles, a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown, 12 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery) leads a unit that allowed just nine rushing touchdowns, third-fewest in the league. The Seahawks aren’t likely to be awed by the atmosphere at AT&T Stadium.
No. 6 seed Philadelphia: Nope, the reign isn’t quite done. It was on life support for awhile, but the Super Bowl LII champion Eagles (9-7) climbed into the playoffs with an impressive late-season push, winning their final three games (including wins over the Rams and Texans, two division champs) to claim the sixth, and final, seed. They’re a dangerous No. 6, though. Philadelphia isn’t the same team that the Saints routed 48-7 in the Superdome on Nov. 18, and it went back to a familiar face in order to put itself in position to defend the title. With Carson Wentz having to be sidelined because of a back injury, Nike Foles, last year’s Super Bowl MVP, started the final three games and completed 87 of 113 passes (77 percent) for 962 yards and six touchdowns, with three interceptions. Perhaps as much for the Philly offense, receiver Alshon Jeffery (16 catches for 301 yards and a touchdown) got more involved and running back Darren Sproles (19 carries for 86 yards, eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown) got healthy over the final three games. But the last-man-in gets the toughest road: the Eagles will play in Chicago, against the Bears’ top-ranked scoring (17.7 points) and rushing (80 yards allowed per game) defense. And the Bears led the league with 27 interceptions, including five returned for touchdowns. If Philly wins, as the lowest seed, it would be the Saints’ opponent. But it’s facing a tall order.