Brees will get the points, but will the defense play down to the level of the Seahawks?
The name of the game for the Saints will be the same as it's been in the regular season: protect Drew Brees, and play big on defense more than just every now and then.
In New Orleans's five losses this year Brees threw 11 interceptions and was sacked 12 times. In the Saints' 11 wins he threw 11 picks and was sacked 13 times. "The thing about Drew," coach Sean Payton said earlier this year, "is you can rely on him doing so much. You get spoiled. We just have to make sure we keep him clean." Right. Early in the season the interior of the line was caving in too much. But the Saints straightened out their run game, relying on rookie free agent Chris Ivory (who left Sunday's game with a foot injury) while Pierre Thomas spent nine weeks recovering from a balky ankle (which he reinjured last Friday), and Brees began playing like the Super Bowl MVP he was 11 months ago.
Let's assume the Saints will be good enough on offense. (A valid assumption even in adverse conditions: New Orleans scored 58 points in cold weather at Cincinnati and Baltimore late in the season.) What gives the Saints hope for a repeat is how they played defensively in some of their biggest games. They held the Vikings to nine points on opening night, the much-improved Bucs to six in Week 6, the Steelers to 10 on Halloween and the Falcons to 14 in Week 16. New Orleans has been terrific on third downs, allowing only a 32% conversion rate over the last half of the season; that would lead the league if carried out to 16 games. The speed of the defensive front smothered the Falcons in the December win in the Georgia Dome, and the secondary has emerged, quietly, as a contender for the league's best. The Saints gave up a league-low 13 touchdown passes—only four, total, against Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre and Matt Ryan (the last of whom they faced twice).
To repeat as Super Bowl champs, however, the Saints must be more consistent, especially on defense. This team rises and falls to the level of its competition, a worrisome trait. After watching New Orleans stifle the Falcons in Week 16 (215 yards), you wondered: How did that same unit give up 457 yards to Jon Kitna's Cowboys and yield 30 points to the otherwise toothless Bengals? It's intensity more than anything else. Coordinator Gregg Williams will dial up the right blitzes in the postseason, the way he frustrated Kurt Warner, Favre and Peyton Manning in last winter's run to the title. But Williams knows he can't rely on trickery to get to the passer all the time; the production from onetime pass-rush stalwart Will Smith (13 sacks last year, 5½ this year) has to be better, for starters.
What's to like about the Saints is their ability to play great defensively when it's desperately needed. The 20--10 beatdown of the Steelers when New Orleans was teetering at 4--3, for instance. Or the 17--14 survival test with the division still up for grabs in Atlanta. What's not to like? It doesn't happen enough.
HOW TO BEAT THE SAINTS
In Cleveland's Week 7 victory over New Orleans, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's aggressive rush packages frustrated Drew Brees. The Browns had three sacks by blitzing linebackers and knocked Brees down nine more times, contributing to four interceptions. Bringing rushers from everywhere is the only way to fluster him.
Don't plan on playing longball against New Orleans, with cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Malcolm Jenkins having shored up a once-shaky secondary. But the Saints are vulnerable to short and intermediate throws—Dallas tight end Jason Witten was targeted 10 times by Jon Kitna on Thanksgiving and caught every pass. You've got to be patient and just take little chunks against this defense.
How NFC fifth seeds have fared since 1990
1 Won Super Bowl
0 Lost Super Bowl
1 Lost conference championship game
4 Lost in divisional round
14 Lost in wild-card round
DERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE
GET TOUGH Smith and the Saints have been too soft against weaker teams.