The Seahawks will host the NFC title game next Sunday.
Led by an exceptionally strong defensive performance for three quarters, the Seahawks defeated the Saints 23-15 in Saturday’s divisional-playoff game in Seattle.
The Seahawks will play the winner of Sunday’s 49ers-Panthers playoff game for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2.
In victory, the Seahawks neutralized one of the game’s top pass-catching threats, holding Saints tight end Jimmy Graham to just one reception. They also held the Saints without a single point until 13:14 left in regulation.
Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch racked up 140 yards on 28 carries and scored both of Seattle’s touchdowns, including a 31-yard rumble off left end that gave Seattle a 23-8 lead with 2:48 left in regulation.
The Saints would make a bit of a rally, with quarterback Drew Brees connecting with Marques Colston on a nine-yard reception with 32 seconds left. Then, the Seahawks could not recover the ensuing onside kick, giving the Saints one last shot at a game-tying drive. But when Colston was flagged for a forward lateral on the game’s last play, the Saints’ comeback hopes were officially dashed.
Mistakes hurt the Saints, who never led in their second loss at Seattle on the season. Kicker Shayne Graham missed two field goals, and punter Thomas Morstead’s 16-yard first-quarter punt helped lead to the first of three field goals by Seattle’s Steven Hauschka.
The Saints also paid dearly for their lone turnover of the game. Two plays after Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett forced and recovered a fumble by tailback Mark Ingram, Lynch powered in from 15 yards out, giving Seattle an 13-0 lead early in the second quarter. Another Hauschka field goal gave Seattle a 16-0 halftime edge.
Near the end of the third quarter, the Saints’ offense started to find its way, and one-yard TD run by Khiry Robinson, coupled with an Ingram two-point run, cut Seattle’s lead to 16-8 with a little more than 13 minutes left in regulation.
Now, the Saints were back in the game. And when Brees connected with Robert Meachem on a 52-yard pass that deflected off safety Earl Thomas’ hands, the Saints were suddenly at the Seahawks’ 25-yard line with less than five minutes left.
But then, New Orleans would make another miscue, drawing a delay of game penalty. And then, the Seahawks’ defense dug in, allowing the Saints to gain no yards on three subsequent plays. Facing a 4th-and-15 at the Seattle 30, the Saints sent out Graham to attempt a 48-yard field goal, and he hooked it wide left.
The Seahawks now had the ball with a chance to put away the Saints. And in a two-play span, they just about did it. First, quarterback Russell Wilson (9-of-18 passing, 103 yards) connected with Doug Baldwin on a 24-yard pass play on 3rd-and-3 with a little less than three minutes left. Then, Lynch broke free off the left side for his 31-yard score.
The Seahawks’ passing game got a lift early from receiver Percy Harvin, who would depart late in the second quarter with a concussion. Harvin caught three passes for 21 yards and rushed once for nine yards, and his impact on the Seahawks’ offense was obvious.
On the other hand, Graham’s lack of impact on the Saints’ offense was also hard to miss. This was a quiet game by the Pro Bowl tight end. Colston (11 catches, 144 yards, one TD) picked up some of the slack, and Brees shook off a below-par first half to finish with 309 yards passing on 24-of-43 completions.
Overall, the Saints outgained the Seahawks 409-277, but make no mistake: the Seahawks’ defense played a strong game, a winning game. By the time the Saints’ offense finally started to get into rhythm, they were running out of time.
And when Seattle’s defense absolutely needed stops, it usually got them.