- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Now comes the real test.
A week from Monday night, the 9-2 Saints visit the 10-1 Seattle Seahawks. The NFC's No. 1 seed is on the line -- not to mention the Saints' reputation as a team that struggles outdoors on the road against physical opponents.
"Listen, they're all big. But obviously we understand the implications of this one," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after Thursday's victory. "'Monday Night Football' at Seattle, it doesn't get any better than that."
The Saints really shouldn't have to prove anything at this point. Not after what they just accomplished over the past 12 days: routing the Dallas Cowboys at home in record fashion, surviving a battle against the nemesis San Francisco 49ers at home, then avoiding the hangover Thursday night at Atlanta -- where the Falcons certainly didn't play like a 2-9 team.
But that's what we're all going to demand of the Saints, anyway -- relentlessly over the next 10 days -- as the hype machine gets kicked into overdrive. The media will debate whether the Saints can win this type of game against this type of opponent. The public will wonder.
And truth be told, the Saints are eager to see how they handle the challenge, as well. The one thing they haven't accomplished in the Sean Payton-Brees era is winning a road playoff game. So they're going to have to win this game at Seattle now to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Or else they'll likely need to go back and try again in January.
"They're great questions, and these are things we've got to continue to answer the bell on," said Saints safety Roman Harper, who was on the field the last time the Saints played Seattle -- an infamous playoff loss after the 2010 season that ended when no one could tackle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. "You know, it's a long season, and we've just got to continue to come on. We've got to meet all these challenges that we're gonna get."
"Yep, yep, all those things," Brees said when the list of inevitable storylines was rattled off to him. "You know, here's the thing: The two times that we've gone to Seattle, it's been 'Sunday Night Football' [in 2007] and the playoffs [in 2010]. And now 'Monday Night Football.' So we've played there when the game has been in prime time, it's been important, it's been meaningful. So we're no strangers to the atmosphere.
"We know that 12th Man atmosphere. We try to have that atmosphere in the dome. So we know what it's like to have that home-field advantage. We know what we're walking into."
The Saints offense actually has played great in its previous two trips to Seattle -- despite the fact that CenturyLink Field has earned a reputation as one of the NFL's most overwhelming environments for visiting opponents. The Saints lost that 2010 playoff game 41-36. They won the '07 game 28-17.
But the Seahawks defense has evolved into a dominant unit since then -- one that ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed (293.3 per game), third in points allowed (16.3 per game) and first, according to ESPN Stats & Information, in putting quarterbacks under duress.
The Saints need to prove they can continue to play the kind of patient-yet-opportunistic offense they flashed at Chicago earlier this season, against San Francisco two weeks ago and again in Thursday night's win (when they won the turnover battle 1-0 and ran out most of the clock with two late first downs).
The Saints' run game, which had been the team's biggest weakness early this year, has been coming on strong.
"We really put our foot in the ground and said, 'Hey, enough is enough. Let's get this ground game going and let's be more of a balanced team.'" said Saints running back Pierre Thomas, who has been playing so well lately that he's at risk of losing his label of one of the league's most underrated weapons.
Thomas ran the ball 10 times for 73 yards and caught five passes for 57 yards. He and tight end Jimmy Graham (five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown) were the Saints' go-to guys on offense -- which will likely remain the case at Seattle.
Thomas said the Saints "definitely" have to prove they can bring that same balance against the Seahawks.
"You know, we showed in '09 that we can win on the road," Thomas said of the Saints' Super Bowl-winning season. “We've got to have that same mindset and that same determination to go out and say, 'Hey, great teams do win on the road, and we are a great team.'"
On the flip side, the Seahawks will have to deal with a Saints defense that has become much feistier than in recent years. The Saints defensive front was once again the driving force behind their win over Atlanta.
Although the Falcons ran the ball well early, then consistently moved the ball down the field with short passes throughout the game, the Saints repeatedly clamped down. The Falcons' only touchdown came on their opening drive, and they were shut out completely in the second half.
Defensive end Keyunta Dawson forced a critical fumble early in the fourth quarter when Atlanta got inside the red zone. Then, end Cameron Jordan came up with a big sack later in the fourth quarter after Atlanta had reached New Orleans' 29-yard line.
Jordan, who might have punched his ticket to his first Pro Bowl on Thursday night, had 2.5 of the Saints' five sacks.
The Saints will need that physicality up front against a Seattle team that ranks third in the NFL with 147.9 rushing yards per game, still led by the punishing Lynch. And oh, by the way, second-year Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is pretty clutch himself.
"We're going to enjoy this tonight. I think everyone appreciates a few extra days off, and [the Seahawks are] going to be coming off a bye as well," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "It's going to be a tough game. And those are the games that you'll remember forever."