Saints know the way to Seattle -- and a victory

Saints know the way to Seattle -- and a victory

Credit: Getty Images

Darren Sproles #43 of the New Orleans Saints runs the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 4, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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by JARRETT BELL / USA TODAY

NWCN.com

Posted on January 6, 2014 at 9:21 AM

Updated Monday, Jan 6 at 12:44 PM

PHILADELPHIA -- It seemed revealing enough when the topic of a cross-country jaunt to Seattle was broached and Curtis Lofton wanted to talk boxing. Classic boxing.

The New Orleans Saints inside linebacker is pumped about another chance to chase Russell Wilson and the test of facing a beast otherwise known as Marshawn Lynch.

The last time was not pretty. The Seahawks pummeled the Saints 34-7 in Week 13.

"It's kind of like one of those heavyweight fights back in the day — Ali vs. Frazier," Lofton told USA TODAY Sports Saturday night. "We got knocked out in the first bout, so it's our turn to go out and throw some punches now."

This is the alter ego of the Saints speaking. The team's identity was forged on the golden arm of Drew Brees and a prolific passing game, but as demonstrated in the TKO of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 26-24 NFC wild-card victory, there are times when the Saints can roll smash-mouth style.

Guys like Lofton, or emerging star defensive end Cameron Jordan, or mauling all-pro guard Jahri Evans epitomize that toughness.

They showed it in winning the first road playoff game in franchise history. The Saints defense battered Chip Kelly's crew, and, while Brees threw for just 250 yards and had two picks, the offense rushed for 185 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

Saints coach Sean Payton, who once served as an Eagles assistant on Ray Rhodes' staff, crowed that, "There is no better place to win a road game."

He was feeling the moment. And rightfully so. Philadelphia has a big-time rep as a tough venue, and the Saints came to town with a three-game road losing streak.

Yet Payton got it wrong. For this team, winning in Seattle would be even better. CenturyLink Field has been a house of horrors for the Saints. The last time they were there, they produced the fewest yards in a game (188) during the Payton era.

And it was also the ear-splitting siteof a loss in the 2010 NFC wild-card round when Lynch's 67-yard TD run provided the biggest highlight of a shootout.

Now, with a trip to the NFC title game on the line on Saturday, the Saints will find a confident team that has lost at home just once in two years.

"There's a reason they're the No. 1 seed," Brees said. "There's a reason that the road to the championship goes through Seattle, because they're a heck of a football team. They know how to win, they know how to win at home.

"We're going to need our best effort to beat these guys, but if there's a team that can do it I believe that's us."

Mention the last trip to Seattle, and Saints safety Roman Harper grimaces. It was such a Murphy's law experience — whatever could go wrong, did go wrong — that the Saints were stuck in Seattle overnight due to issues with their airplane.

"That was after the game," Harper said.

I get it. The game was even worse. The defense was shredded for 429 yards. The offense managed just 12 first downs. And it started bad. The Saints fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter.

Payton told his team after that game to remember the sting. He sensed they would eventually have a chance to make amends.

"It left a terrible taste," Harper said. "Just a sick stomach."

And it stung like a bee.

Said Lofton, "We learned a lot from that game. Like what we have to do … and what we can't do."

What they must have is a team effort. In the 41-36 playoff loss at Seattle following the 2010 season, Brees passed for 404 yards without an interception. And the Saints still lost. With an injury-depleted backfield, they rushed for 77 yards.

General manager Mickey Loomis remembers the takeaway from that setback — and it's striking to consider how it has evolved. That was the game when just-signed Julius Jones was the emergency back.

"We were playing with a guy we'd signed a week and a half before that," Loomis recalled for USA TODAY Sports. "Pierre (Thomas) was out. Reggie (Bush) got hurt. We had nobody left.

"One thing I learned: We've got to stack the running backs up. If somebody gets hurt, we've got to have options."

That approach surely played out on Saturday night, when the Saints played without starting running back Pierre Thomas, ruled out with a chest injury. Yet they still ran their offense through the running game, as Mark Ingram rushed for 99 yards and a rookie free agent Khiry Robinson was trusted enough to get three crucial carries (for 22 yards) on the game-winning drive that set up Shayne Graham's fourth field goal, a 32-yarder, as time expired.

Last week, Payton pulled a page from his mentor Bill Parcells' book and placed plastic gasoline containers around the locker room to promote a not-so-subtle theme.

How much gas do you have left?

Ingram laughed about it when reminded of the stunt.

"I've got plenty of gas left," he told USA TODAY Sports. "I've got a full tank."

The Saints surely know how it can be done. Now it's a matter of doing it again.

 

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