SEATTLE — 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.”