(6) NEW ORLEANS (12-5) at (1) SEATTLE (13-3), 4:35 p.m. ET, FOX
Several themes work for this game. It's the Seahawks' next season in their "12th Man Rising" toward the top of their sport under head coach Pete Carroll. It's the Saints' first year back and back in the playoffs under Sean Payton's leadership after Payton's Bounty-gate banishment.
But how about this? It's a battle of two hot defensive coordinators as they try to help their teams survive the anticipated onslaught from the other side's offensive juggernauts.
Rob Ryan — do we need to mention he's Jets HC Rex Ryan's twin bro? — has had a fine season as his group finished fourth in the NFL regular season in yardage allowed, second in pass defense and fourth in points allowed. But his D allowed a season-high 428 drive yards and 27 points to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks six weeks ago.
Nevertheless, Payton said this week on NBCSN, "I think Rob's going to be a head coach." And Wilson told Seattle fans:
"Coach Rob Ryan is a tremendous coach. He does a lot of things and he brings a lot of fire from all different directions. And so I think the thing is just being protected, making sure that you make the smart decision. Don't force anything if it's not there, just salvage the play, throw it away or run it and get a couple of yards here or there."
But there's the challenge that Seattle DC Dan Quinn faces. Quinn, the former Jets D-line coach in 2007-08 and a hot prospect for several of the NFL head-coaching openings, coached up the NFL's No. 1 defense in total yards, pass yards and points allowed. Now he's just got to do it again against one of the best playoff passers of all time.
Home is where the 'Hawks' heart is this week and in general. They're 15-1 over the past two seasons at CenturyLink Field and have won their past five postseason home games. One of those five was the 41-36 shocker over the Saints at Seattle in the 2010 NFC Wild Card Round. The Seahawks are 7-6 all-time against the Saints, including four of the last six.
Then there's that 34-7 enchilada they hung on the Saints on Monday night, Dec. 2, with Wilson throwing three TD passes.
But Carroll wisely counseled all to throw that game out of their playoff planning.
"There are no automatics here. They're going to hear about it," he said of a message he's passing on to his players this week. "It's human nature that you would like to think it's going to be the same. But we have to know better than that. We need to respect this for what it is, a great championship matchup, and they're going to come loaded up."
Besides that coachspeak, there is another reason for the 'Hawks to be humble: No. 1 seeds still enjoy a big advantage, but it's not as big as it used to be. Top seeds in the NFL's divisional rounds since 1990 are 32-14 (.696) but since 2005 that "homefield advantage" is under .500 at 7-9 (.438).
Seattle also led the NFL in takeaways (39), interceptions (28) and turnover margin (plus-20), and they had the top defensive drive rates in TDs allowed at 10.8% — the best in the NFL, in fact, since the Jets defense's 10.2% rate in 2009 — and turnovers forced (19.4%).
A big reason for those rankings: their star-studded secondary — CB Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor were named to the Pro Bowl two weeks ago.
Saints Pro Bowlers Brees (second behind Peyton Manning with 5,162 passing yards) and favorite target TE Jimmy Graham (who led all TEs this year with 86 catches and 1,215 yards and all passcatchers with 16 receiving TDs) will try to clear that hurdle for more than one score this time.
Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch (tied for the league lead with 12 rush TDs) will try to help Wilson's passing game. Saints DE Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) and LB Junior Galette (12 sacks) will try to close it down.
Steven Hauschka (33-for-35 FGs) is Seattle's can't-miss kicker. New Orleans hopes to let the good times continue to roll with K Shayne Graham, who replaced errant Garrett Hartley in December.
First-year WR Nick Toon, son of Jets Ring of Honor WR Al Toon, is a backup in Brees' receiving corps. As such, he's in the wideouts meeting room presided over by WRs coach Henry Ellard, who was the Jets' WRs coach from 2009-11. Former Jets first-round LB Jonathan Vilma and ex-Green & White starting DE Kenyon Coleman are both on IR but will lend their expertise to the Saints cause.
Carroll, the Jets' head coach for the 1994 season, doesn't have any players with Jets ties. But besides Quinn, on his coaching staff is WRs coach Kippy Brown, who coached alongside Coach Petey on HC Bruce Coslet's Jets staff from 1990-92.