NFC South: 2013 NFL Divisional Round Double Coverage

 

SEATTLE -- Six weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints came to Seattle in a big Monday night showdown with the Seahawks to see which team would gain the upper hand in homefield advantage for the playoffs.

The Seahawks steamrolled past the Saints 34-7 that night. So here the Saints are again, back in Seattle with hopes of a different outcome in the playoffs.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a detailed look at how these two teams match up for Saturday's NFC divisional round game at CenturyLink Field:

Blount: Mike, the Saints took it on the chin at Seattle six weeks ago. How much of a motivational factor do you think that is this week for the team?

Triplett: I'd say this game is about as big as it gets in the motivation department. That was really one of the two or three most humbling defeats in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. I might rank it No. 1 considering how high the expectations were going into that game. But more important than those emotions is the fact that this is the second round of the playoffs -- which is pretty good motivation for any team. The Saints haven't advanced past this point since their 2009 Super Bowl season. And a big win here would instantly erase all the little regrets from earlier this season.

I'll also say this: The Saints are a very confident bunch. I think they expected to get back in this situation at some point, and they relish the opportunity. They certainly respect the Seahawks, but I think they're fully expecting a much more competitive game. As am I.

On the flip side, Terry, do you see a repeat performance coming from the Seahawks? They were pretty lights-out that night, especially Russell Wilson.

Blount: I certainly don't see a repeat performance if you mean a 27-point Seattle victory. It's hard to beat any team twice in the same season, much less two blowouts. But I do see Wilson having another strong performance. He's coming off a good game in the season finale against St. Louis and he typically plays at a much higher level at home. Obviously, having Percy Harvin on the field would help, but Wilson is battle-tested with two tough playoff games last year when he really showed a lot of people what he can do.

Mike, Wilson had one of his best games of the season against the Saints with three TD passes and 310 yards passing. He burned the Saints a couple times on their blitzes. Do you think they will have a different approach this time?

Triplett: They'll definitely tweak the approach. But I think the execution is even more important. That night, it was pretty obvious that the Saints' top priority was containing Marshawn Lynch -- which they did a good job of. But they got burned too often by play-action fakes (big pass plays and big runs by Wilson). I've never seen them have so many undisciplined breakdowns, before or since. They've been much better playing in similar-style games against the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles since. They were outstanding against both LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson last week.

The Saints defense is much better than what people saw that night -- though they did lose talented safety Kenny Vaccaro to a season-ending ankle injury since then, which hurts against both the pass and run.

A two-part question for you: When defenses have had success against Seattle's offense this year, what have they done to cause problems? And how much do you think the Saints will have to worry about Harvin in this game?

Blount: In the late-season losses to the 49ers and the Cardinals, both teams did a great job of keeping Wilson in the pocket. If Wilson was going to run, they wanted to make him run up the middle, and it worked. They didn't blitz a lot, but they made sure to cut off Wilson's outside angles. Both teams also stacked the box and did a good job of stopping Lynch and limited the running game.

If Harvin is on the field, that changes a lot of things. Seattle free safety Earl Thomas told me last week that if he had to play against Harvin, he would need to account for him on every play because of Harvin's exceptional speed. So if Harvin's out there, even if he isn't 100 percent healthy, he changes the way a defense plays. You have to pick your poison. Load the box to stop Lynch and you risk Harvin beating someone one-on-one. Pay more attention to Harvin and Lynch might break a big run. Either way, it makes things better for Wilson.

Mike, I thought a big factor in the victory at Philadelphia was New Orleans' success at running the ball with Mark Ingram. How confident are you they can repeat that performance against the Seahawks?

Triplett: The Saints are still a pass-first, pass-often team. But I think they've been even better this year than usual at staying patient and "taking what the defense gives them." Last week, the Eagles were practically begging the Saints to run the ball, so they did. They'll still take their shots down the field, but they're smart enough to attack the matchups they find most favorable in any given game. It's also a pick-your-poison offense with so many versatile weapons like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and a deep group of running backs.

Graham, however, said Seattle's defense causes a lot of problems because the defensive backs and linebackers are all so fast (not to mention physical). Are there any weaknesses the Saints might be able to exploit?

Blount: Honestly Mike, I just don't see it. The front seven held the Rams to 13 yards rushing in the season finale. The secondary is the best I've seen in 30 years. However, one man who had a big impact in the Monday night game six weeks ago was linebacker K.J. Wright, who did a superb job covering Saints tight Graham.

Wright is out for this game after undergoing foot surgery. Malcolm Smith has played lights out in his place, but Smith is only 6 feet tall. I can't see him covering the 6-7 Graham the way Wright (a lanky 6-4) was able to do. Strong safety Kam Chancellor likely will get those duties, but Graham might make some big plays he didn't make in the first meeting.


Perhaps no two teams in the NFC are more alike than the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, who meet at 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium for the right to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

They both have big, physical, mobile quarterbacks.

They both have offenses built around the running game.

They both rely on physical, highly ranked defenses built around stopping the run first.

Their regular-season meeting at Candlestick Park showed just how close they are. Carolina won 10-9 on Nov. 10 in one of the more physical games of the season.

The rematch has all the ingredients to be just as close and physical.

ESPN.com Panthers reporters David Newton and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson are here to break it down.

Newton: Bill, hope you have thawed out from the trip to Green Bay. The first game between these teams was an old-fashioned NFC bruiser. Do you see the rematch being anything different?

Williamson: You're right, David, the first 49ers-Panthers matchup was one of the most physical games of the 2013 NFL season. I think we are going to see a similar game. These teams are similar, and are both really good teams. So this is going to be another close, physical game.

I do think more points will be scored. A huge difference for the 49ers is they will have receiver Michael Crabtree this time, and you have to assume tight end Vernon Davis won't leave this game early, as he did in the Nov. 10 meeting. Crabtree has made this a different team since he returned Dec. 1 from a torn Achilles. He had his best game of the season last week at Green Bay with eight catches for 125 yards. David, do you think the Panthers are prepared to deal with Crabtree?

Newton: They better be, or it could be a long day. I suspect they will take a similar approach to their Dec. 22 victory over New Orleans, which has talented receivers and Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. And remember, Crabtree was facing a Green Bay defense that was ranked 24th against the pass and 25th overall. Carolina's defense ranks sixth against the pass and second overall. That's a significant difference.

To me it doesn't come down to Crabtree as much as it does to the pass rush. Carolina led the league in sacks with 60 and has 15 in the past two games. The Panthers will try to push quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of his comfort zone like they did in the first meeting, when they sacked him six times. The secondary is a huge part of that. They mix things up with complicated zone coverages that make it difficult for receivers. They also are physical with them. To stand a chance, the Panthers have to duplicate the kind of effort they had in the first game. If they pressure Kaepernick that way again, Crabtree won't be as effective.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the 49ers did a nice job on Cam Newton in the first game. This will be Newton's first playoff game. Are the 49ers worried about him?

Williamson: The 49ers certainly respect Newton and are wary of him. But I don't think they are overly fretting about him. The 49ers just beat Aaron Rodgers. He's the best quarterback in the NFL. So they can handle Newton.

I think what gives the 49ers confidence that they can continue to have success against Newton is that their defense is so athletic. So it matches up well against Newton. He did come up with some big third-down passes against the 49ers. So San Francisco has to find a way to keep him from making clutch plays. That means the 49ers have to keep pressure on him throughout the down. If Newton athletically beats the 49ers, they will have a tough day.

David, my last question for you is: What do you think the Panthers can do overall to ensure they move on to the NFC title game?

Newton: Bill, because I see the defense doing its part, for me it all comes down to Newton. As left tackle Jordan Gross said this season, as Newton goes, so go the Panthers. This will be his biggest challenge on his biggest stage, but he's a lot more confident now than he was the first time these teams met. He has since engineered last-minute, game-winning drives to beat New England, Miami and New Orleans. I believe you'll see him throw caution to the wind when it comes to running. Having favorite receiver Steve Smith back will help as well. If Newton can handle the big-game atmosphere as he did in college, the Panthers have a chance. Having said that, what do the 49ers have to do?

Williamson: San Francisco has to take advantage of what it has now, but didn't have when it last played Carolina -- and that’s better offensive weapons. Crabtree has been back for six weeks, and the offense is much better. Having a healthy Davis makes the 49ers better in this game, as well. But they can't spoil those advantages. San Francisco must find the end zone a couple of times. The 49ers had just three field goals against the Panthers in November, and settling for field goals has been an issue all season.

Because points are going to be at such a premium, the 49ers have to do what it takes to find the end zone, at least two times in this game. If not, another close loss to Carolina might be on the horizon.

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