BY Art Thiel 08:10PM 01/09/2011

NFL upsets: It’s when you play (and where)

Difference between 6-10 and 10-6 teams: a handful of plays

Coach Sean Payton and his New Orleans Saints played the wrong team at the wrong time / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Fans of losing teams often don’t take much solace from the bromide, but another vivid example was offered Saturday:

In a given NFL season, the difference between teams with records of 6-10 and 10-6 is often no more than a handful of plays.

Drew Brees was nearly sick over how that truth played out in a single game between his 11-5 Saints and the 7-9 Seahawks.

The MVP of the Super Bowl couldn’t get over the fact that his Saints made it into the Seahawks’ red zone seven times but came away with only four touchdowns, settling for field goals three times.

“Seven times,” he repeated for emphasis. “Just imagine if we could have gotten one more touchdown out of those three (stops by Seattle’s defense).

“They didn’t play like a 7-9 team today . . . they played great.”

Great? Brees’ greatness remark was a compliment, not an analysis. Certainly, the Seahawks played well enough, and deserved to move on in the NFL playoffs. But another axiom, often championed by the king of axioms, former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox, also prevailed Saturday.

“It not who you play,” he would say, “but when you play ’em.”

In this case, that meant the Seahawks played the Saints when they ran out of running backs. Conversely, the Saints played the Seahawks after they discovered how to run the ball.

Already missing their top two rushers, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, the Saints appeared to have a good alternative in Pete Carroll’s one-time student, Reggie Bush. But Bush had only 12 yards in five carries before limping off with a leg bruise. They were down to fourth-stringer Julius Jones, the ex-Seahawk who had just 48 yards for the Saints this season.

Saturday, he had a respectable 59 yards and two touchdowns, but by the end of the game, he was hurt, too. The unsteady rushing attack couldn’t keep Brees from having to heave the ball 60 times.

Asked if the missing rushers affected playcalling, New Orleans coach Sean Payton said, “Yes, but the runners handled it pretty well. It wasn’t until the second half that we got hampered with Reggie going down and Julius going down.

“It’s been one of those seasons where, at that position, we had a number of injuries. But yet that wasn’t the difference today.”

Translation from coach-speak: It was a big deal.

Just as it was a big deal in Seattle most of the season when its rushing game was hampered by a steady personnel churn along the offensive line.

But in the last two games with a healthier Russell Okung at left tackle and greater familiarity in the group, the Seahawks ran for 141 yards against St. Louis and 149 yards against the Saints, with one lost fumble. In do-or-die games where possessions and ball security are even more vital, the Seahawks suddenly blossomed in a crucial aspect of the game.

Why, tight end John Carlson was asked, did the running game flourish in the last two weeks after a 16-week flounder?

“That’s a really good question,” said Carlson, appearing sincere. “I don’t know.”

It may have been as simple as steady applications of time and practice that reached fruition at season’s end. Which, for the Saints, and the Rams before them, turned into cases of bad timing.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck deservedly was hailed for his passing feats, but the Seahawks had 100 yards less passing Saturday than in the first meeting in New Orleans, a 34-19 loss. Because the Seahawks could move the ball a bit on the ground, they could choose to pass instead of having little choice.

To extend Knox’s point a step further, not only is it when you play an opponent, it’s where.

That’s where things get tough this weekend for the Seahawks. No more home earache. They must play the Bears in Chicago.

The home-field advantage that accrues to division winners in the first round is why Carroll talked endlessly about the importance of being kings of the NFC West. That much-derided division is now 9-5 in the playoffs since 2005, the best division record in the NFL.

An immeasurable but undeniable part of Saturday’s stunner was Qwest Field’s noise harbor. Brees was hip to Seattle’s home playoff record.

“Five and one is pretty stout,” he said. “That lets you know how hard it is to come here and get a victory. It makes it a very tough home-field advantage.

“This is definitely one of the loudest places in the league. Not just at moments, but consistently, throughout the entire game. Great fans.”

While the atmosphere was familiar for Seahawks, here was the outside observation from the Cold Hard Football Facts website:

“Seeing a game at Qwest Field should be added to any NFL fan’s bucket list. Sure, maybe we got a bit burned out on Seattle in the 1990s when the hype machine was cranking all things Pacific Northwest at us. Nirvana, Starbucks, all that alternative jazz.

“You don’t hear as much about Seattle these days. But the sight of the architecturally awesome Qwest Field filled with greenish-blue throngs screaming was a hell of a thing to behold. There might be better franchises and better teams out there, but being a Seahawk fan looks like an awful lot of fun when things go right.”

After a season largely of dreariness, fun arrived hard and fast in seven  days. As Knox always knew, it was less about who, than when.


  • Yig

    I love the ‘hawks, love sportspress northwest and don’t mean to be negative here, but of the 149 yds rushing, 67 yds came from one play.

    • dcrockett17


      Yeah, but that 67 yarder came on a play when Seattle lined up in a run formation and ran it, when the Saints had to get a stop.

      Also, the Seahawks had a decent running game before that. Not tons of yards but we were getting 4 and 5 yards on first downs.

      The difference a healthy(ish) Okung made, along with two athletic guards was incredible.

  • Lucky Infidel

    Yes, it is about when and WHERE you play. And guess what happens if the Seahawks and Packers both win next week?

  • Inch12

    Knox was right. Football teams are almost always a work in progress. When it clicks, it clicks.

  • Football Fannie

    So we shouldn’t worry about the 10:00 A.M start time?

  • McMurphy

    ““Just imagine if we could have gotten one more touchdown out of those three (stops by Seattle’s defense).”

    Actually, the Seattle defense stopped the Saints in the red zone only once. One time — on the Saints’ first possession — New Orleans stopped themselves when a Reggie Bush dropped a 3rd down pass on the Seattle two yard line which would have been a touchdown, or a N.O. first down on the Hawks’ 1 yard line.

    On the Saints’ last possession of the first half they were not stopped by the Seattle defense — they just ran out of time. N.O. had first and goal at the Seattle 4 with 10 seconds left in the first half, and spiked the ball to stop the clock. Then the Saints had in incomplete pass on 2nd and goal, then kicked a field goal on 3rd and goal from the Seattle 4. You can hardly call that being stopped by the Seattle defense, when the Saints were able to run only one play after 1st and goal from the Seattle 4 because there were only 10 seconds left in the half and the Saints had no timeouts. Kicking a field goal on 3rd down is not being “stopped by the defense.”

    This was a very even game, and the Hawks deserved to win. However, had it been played in N.O. the outcome may have gone the other way.

    And, according to the tv announcers, the biggest injury the Saints had was their best defensive back, who did not play in the game. The guy who replaced him got burned for 3 of Hasselback’s 4 td passes, I believe.

    I give a lot of credit for this win to the Seahawks’ coaching. I thought Seattle out-coached N.O. With Hasselback coming off a back/hip injury, and not able to run, I could not believe the Saints almost never blitzed, and even used a 3-man rush a lot. And then, even without blitzing, N.O. still allowed Seattle receivers to get behind their defense on a regular basis. Poor coaching from the Saints, in my opinion. And some great play calling by Seattle.

  • the gaffa

    What a great game by #8 after all the BS he has put up w. He is as good as anybody when he is on. You also have to like Caroll’s fast & loose style. These guys are playing without alot of pressure on them & having fun. We have nothing to lose & can afford to take more chances than teams w high expectations. That game was the epitome of why you play the game, anybody can beat anybody on a given day. Of coarse the BCS folks would have a team w a better record that ‘travels well’ against an east coast program & called it a championship game…

  • Sara

    Let’s not forget what a great asset Brandon Stokely was too! He came through with some amazing catches and created some big plays.

  • Mickey Mouse

    Matt had the game of hs life at the right time. Remarkable – 4 TD’s? 130 QB rating – whoa!

    The thing that amazed me was how much time he got in the pocket – NO must have a lousy pass rush, as everyone knows MH can’t run and out OL is average, so it’s “meet you at the QB”.

    Chicago will put on a fierce rush, so the OL and Matt will really have to step up.

    I expect to see a lot of 3 step drops and short passes to the TE and slants, until the Bears stay back. Otherwise, it could be a painfully loooong day for MH

  • Dave

    Does it get any sweeter than this? It can’t! All you want is the chance to win, and Seattle has it. There is doubt in the Bears minds, believe what you want. The Hawks went in there, and won. I feel good about our chances, Clemons and Brock are healthy, shake it off Tatupu! It is up to the coaching, I believe, and Matthew is HOT! Expect a close game, don’t punt the ball to Devon Hester, and we have an OUTSTANDING chance!!