- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Chicago Bears reporter
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1. Pressure on Brees: Seattle couldn’t get to Drew Brees when the teams first met in Week 11, and the quarterback made the Seahawks pay, hitting 29 of 43 for 382 yards and four touchdowns. In fact, not many teams have gotten to Brees, who has been sacked 25 times all season.
With the Saints expected to struggle on the ground, the Seahawks could help themselves by putting heat on Brees, who will be under pressure to distribute the ball through the passing game. Part of the difficulty in sacking Brees is his quick release, but the Seahawks’ defensive line may be able to offset that by getting their hands up on the rush. Remember, Brees is just 6-feet tall, which means Seattle has a shot at batting down passes or tipping them to cause potential interceptions.
If they can’t, look for Brees to pick apart Seattle’s secondary with his large array of weapons.
2. Can Bush and Jones handle the load?: Saints running back Chris Ivory gained 99 yards against the Seahawks when the teams met in Week 11, but the club recently placed him on the injured reserve, along with Pierre Thomas, the top backup option.
That means the Seahawks should see plenty of injury-prone Reggie Bush and Julius Jones. Are they capable of generating enough production in the rushing to take pressure off Brees and the passing game? Seattle knows that despite the Saints’ depleted backfield, as long as they have Brees, the Saints can win.
But if Bush and Jones can’t produce, look for the Saints’ offense to sputter.
3. Hasselbeck’s experience: Making his 10th -- that's right -- 10th start in the postseason, Matt Hasselbeck has proven (in the regular season, and playoffs) he can defeat a unit led by Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But the question is whether anything remains in the tank for Hasselbeck, who skewered the Saints for 366 yards and a touchdown in a Week 11 loss.
Hasselbeck hasn’t duplicated his performance from that Saints game, surrendering 13 turnovers in his next four outings, before he being benched against Atlanta, then suffering a strained hip the next week against Tampa Bay. So if Hasselbeck can call upon his vast playoff experience and eliminate the turnovers, the Seahawks might have a shot at pulling off the upset.
4. The Qwest Field crowd: Similar to the Bears’ use of the “4th Phase” moniker, Seattle calls its crowd the “12th man.”
The Seahawks’ fans definitely live up to the nickname.
Qwest Field is often referred to as the loudest outdoor stadium in the league. In the last six years, visiting teams have been flagged 104 times for false-start penalties, the most for any stadium in that period, and decibel readings there have reportedly been recorded as high as 115, which is the equivalent of a rock concert.
Given the intricate nature of New Orleans’ offense, crowd noise can play a major role in disrupting audibles and protection calls made at the line of scrimmage.
It’s also worth mentioning here that the Saints have never won a road playoff game.
5. How the Saints attack the middle: There’s a good chance the Seahawks take a conservative approach to covering New Orleans in the secondary in an attempt to eliminate big plays. But that shouldn’t slow down the Saints because they’ll just lean on intermediate routes, which are the bulk of the offense anyway.
Brees will have to be patient and settle for underneath throws to the slot receivers, tight ends -- such as Jeremy Shockey -- and running backs with the Seahawks playing so conservatively. But will he?
The fact is Brees has thrown more interceptions this season (22) than ever in his career. So the Seahawks are banking on the quarterback possibly making mistakes, which is precisely why they’ll force Brees to dink and dunk.
Five things to watch in the Seahawks-Saints playoff game on Saturday.