NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - INSIDE SLANT
When the NFL schedule was released last April, New Orleans Saints' fans quickly pointed to what figured to be one of their team's biggest challenges of the season -- a December trip to the Pacific Northwest to face the Seattle Seahawks.
Fans envisioned a tough battle against one of the preseason favorites to win the NFC title and possibly the Super Bowl. In addition, the Saints had to play in CenturyLink Field -- where the Seahawks almost never lose.
The NFL schedule-maker likely recognized the possible ramifications as well, penciling the game in for ESPN's Monday Night Football -- which proved to be a good move, at least on paper.
When the Saints (9-2) and Seahawks (10-1) get together Monday night, they could be playing for the all-important home-field advantage in the NFC even though each team will have four games remaining after they meet.
With a win, the Saints would hold the tie-breaking edge over the Seahawks if they both finish the regular season with identical records. The Seahawks, on the other hand, can all but wrap up the No. 1 seed if they come out of it with a virtual three-game lead over the Saints factoring in the tie-breaker.
The Seahawks have won six games in a row, just behind the Carolina Panthers' current seven-game winning streak, to take control in the NFC West -- which is one of the things that quickly catches the eye of Saints coach Sean Payton.
"We know we're playing an outstanding team that is playing at a high level in every phase of the game when you look at them," Payton said. "It will be a big test for us."
At the same time, Payton feels good about how his team is playing. After dropping a 26-20 decision to the New York Jets on Nov. 3, the Saints won three games in 12 days -- beating the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons to remain one game ahead of the surging Panthers in the NFC South race.
That tough three-game stretch showed Payton something that he didn't see in the disappointing road loss to the Jets -- which could pay dividends for them against the Seahawks.
"I think we've gotten a little bit better defending the run and a little bit better running the football," he said, noting the Saints played three games against three teams that are different offensively and defensively.
"We've been able to see that. I think we'll see some real good opponents coming up, starting with Seattle. From that standpoint, I'm encouraged."
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 6-5, after winning the last two matchups in 2007 and 2010. In their last regular-season visit to CenturyLink Field, in 2007, the Saints were 0-4 after playing in the NFC Championship Game the year before but upset the Seahawks, 28-17, on a Sunday night. They also met in Seattle in the 2010 wild-card playoffs with the Seahawks shocking the Saints, 41-36.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - NOTES, QUOTES
--After fielding the worst defense statistically in NFL history in 2012, the Saints have turned things around in a big way in ranking fifth in fewest yards and points allowed going into Week 13.
While those are two important statistics, the Saints are tied for first in another key area -- sacks -- going into Monday night's big showdown with the Seattle Seahawks.
The Saints already have 37 sacks, seven more than they had when they tied for 25th a year ago, and are averaging 3.4 sacks per game. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, a third-year pro, has a career-high 9.5 sacks, while outside linebacker Junior Galette has recorded six.
Going into this week's play, the Saints are tied with Baltimore, Green Bay, Kansas City and Buffalo for the league lead.
--Despite losing their first game in November to the New York Jets, 26-20, the Saints rebounded nicely by winning their final three games in the month.
They beat the Dallas Cowboys (49-17), San Francisco 49ers (23-20) and Atlanta Falcons (17-13) in a span of 12 days to finish the month with a 3-1 record.
That stretch continued some solid play for the Saints in the month as they've won 19 of their past 23 November games dating back to 2008. They won 14 consecutive November games from 2009 to 2012 -- losing their last two last season before winning three of four this year.
--Since the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, the Saints have had great success in prime-time games -- particularly on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
Counting a 38-17 blowout of the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 30, the Saints have won nine in a row on Monday night and are 11-2 since Payton took over.
The Saints, who play the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night, are 17-17 all-time on Monday Night Football and are 20-8 in all prime-time games in the Payton-Brees era.
--When Brees fired a 3-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Josh Hill in a Nov. 17 game with the 49ers, he added another name to a long list of teammates he's thrown scoring passes to.
Brees now has 272 touchdown passes with the Saints, which have been distributed to 30 players. Counting his first five seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Brees has thrown at least one touchdown to 45 different players.
--In their most recent game with the Falcons, the Saints had no giveaways in a 17-13 win.
They're 3-0 this season and 25-1 since Payton took over in 2006 when they don't turn the ball over. Throw in a pair of error-free playoff games and the Saints are 27-1 with no giveaways since the start of the 2006 season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- Consecutive wins for the Saints on ESPN's Monday Night Football going into this week's showdown with the Seattle Seahawks. The Saints' last Monday night loss came on Oct. 6, 2008 when they dropped a 30-27 decision to the Minnesota Vikings.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We seem like we're in a great spot right now. Our offense can really do it all: go out there, run the ball, execute, pick up first downs on the ground and also in the air. We just feel like we are in a great position now and just (need to) stay focused." -- Saints RB Pierre Thomas, on his team's improving running game.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RCB Corey White had a rough go in his first start in place of an injured Jabari Greer, but likely will get another shot against the Seattle Seahawks.
--SS Roman Harper, who missed seven games with a knee injury, fared well last week in his first start since Week 2 and should start against Seattle.
--RG Tim Lelito, an undrafted rookie, will make his second straight start Monday night if Jahri Evans continues to be hobbled by an ankle injury.
--CB Trevin Wade, a second-year player who was signed on Nov. 19, could see his first action for the Saints against the Seahawks.
--RG Jahri Evans didn't play last week with an ankle injury and his status for Monday night is unknown because the Saints didn't practice Wednesday.
--RB Darren Sproles was held out of the last game with knee and ankle injuries and it's not known when he might return.
--DE Glenn Foster suffered an injury to his lower left leg early in the third quarter against the Falcons and his status remains unknown.
--DE Tyrunn Walker, who returned to practice last week after a knee injury, could be active for the game with the Seahawks if Glenn Foster is out.
--LB Curtis Lofton has been limited in practice with hamstring and ankle problems, but should play Monday night.
--DE Cameron Jordan has recovered from a nagging ankle injury, but will play against the Seahawks.
--DE Akiem Hicks was limited in practice last week with a back injury, but should be ready to go Monday night.
--CB Chris Carr has been limited with hip, back and hamstring problems, but likely will play against the Seahawks.
--CB Rod Sweeting has had a hip injury, but was able to play last week and should be available again.
GAME PLAN: The Saints have been able to run the ball a lot better in the past three games, which could come in handy against the Seahawks. They rank 16th against the run and second against the pass, but they also have a depleted secondary. That will likely mean a lot of early runs for the Saints, who hope to get into the Seahawks' secondary if they have some success on the ground.
Defensively, the Saints know they have to contain quarterback Russell Wilson as best they can -- just two weeks after doing a decent job against Colin Kaepernick. The Saints will be challenged by the Seahawks' third-ranked running attack that averages 147.9 yards per game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Saints front seven vs. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch -- Simply put, the Saints can't allow these two to beat them with their legs. The Saints have vastly improved over the past three weeks vs. the run, but they can't let Wilson and Lynch do what Chris Ivory did to them earlier this month when he gashed them for 139 yards on just 18 carries. Lynch averages 4.4 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and Wilson averages 5.7 yards per carry, so they will be a priority for the Saints.
--Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Seahawks secondary -- Even though they'll be missing starting cornerback Walter Thurmond, the Saints will face a tough test against cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas -- arguably the best secondary in the league. Brees has thrown only eight interceptions, just four in the last eight games, but he'll have to be extra careful Monday night. Sherman and Thomas are tied for the team lead with four picks each, while Chancellor has two.
--Saints OLB Junior Galette vs. Seahawks LT Russell Okung -- While Okung has played just one game in the past two months because of an injury, he's still a solid player after making the Pro Bowl a year ago. Galette, who has a career-high six sacks this season, has been a disruptive force for many teams even when he doesn't get to the quarterback because of his quickness and strength coming off the edge and should be a challenge for Okung.