In beating the Eagles the past weekend in Philadelphia to earn the booby prize of a trip to Seattle in January, the Saints did something they hadn’t done all season — run the ball more times (36) than they passed (30) — with a backup tailback, no less. New Orleans was rewarded with its first road playoff win in the franchise’s 47 years.
Discovery? Or dubious deviation?
The Saints were the NFC’s No. 1 team in passing offense and 14th among the 16 teams in rushing offense. In frozen Philly, they went contrarian for 185 yards rushing behind Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and Khiry Robinson.
The three combined for 108 yards on 18 first-down carries, which is an admirable production rate, particularly in view of the injury absence of leading rusher Pierre Thomas, who still has a chest injury and is listed as questionable for the doings at the Clink at 1:35 p.m. Saturday.
The questions before the house are whether the Saints aren’t who we thought they were — a team that rushed for 44 yards in their last visit to Seattle Dec. 2 — and if different Saturday, whether that’s a good idea for them.
Raise your hand if you have an answer . . . OK, you, the tall, skinny fella with the dreads. Man, your hand is always up.
“I think,” said Richard Sherman, “we expect them to run the ball like they did against Philadelphia because that worked very effectively in that game for them. But you can’t change the DNA of your team.”
Really. Do go on (as if the request were necessary).
“You can’t change what you have done, because you start making stuff up in the playoffs, then what can you say after the game? How can you justify it?” he said. “You can say that (running the ball Dec. 2) didn’t work the first time — if that’s what you do. If you throw shots, that’s what you do.
“You can’t change the makeup of your offense, and your game planning. They definitely sprinkled in some nuances, but I think at the end of the day, they’re going to go back to who they are.”
Sherman’s notion that a team might go out of character once, but not twice, is buttressed by the fact that the Eagles probably had the worst defense among 12 playoff teams, ranking 13th in the NFC. The Eagles in the regular season gave up 394 yards a game, compared to the Seahawks average of 274 that led the NFL.
Against that defense in those tough conditions, running more often was a smart move by coach Sean Payton. If he has a one-time spell to cast, that was the time and place. If the Saints want a fresh potion for Saturday, well, the trip from New Orleans to Seattle has no stopover at Hogwarts.
Besides, Payton has a playcalling scar from Dec. 2 that probably isn’t going away for awhile. On the Saints’ first play from scrimmage, he called for a tailback dive that had an option to go left or right after handoff. But having to communicate that option in the Clink din at that moment was unwise.
As the blocking went left and Thomas went right, Seahawks DT Brandon Mebane blew into the backfield unmolested for a tackle that cost New Orleans four yards. The game for the Saints began sliding away right then.
“They didn’t block me that play,” Mebane said. “I think they made a mistake.”
There was no “they.” Payton, on a teleconference call with Seattle reporters, manfully owned the screw-up.
“That was not really smart of me,’’ he said. “You open the game up with a play that could go left, and it might be able to go right. It’s probably right after they just raised the 12th Man flag, so it was loud as the stadium could be.”
That doesn’t mean Payton won’t try to run the ball a little more, and a little smarter. But trying to run it a lot more . . . that train left in Philly.
Another storyline for this game is the belief that the Saints will be better adjusted to the noise, having experienced the shock wave Dec. 2. Payton explained it with analogy that rings true for anyone who’s every experienced the Mississippi delta in the summer.
“It’s kind of like August down here in New Orleans,” he said. “At some point, it’s just as hot as it can be. We don’t need to know the exact temperature . . .(at the Clink) it’s just loud.’’
Loud is, indeed, loud. It’s safe to assume the Saints will be better prepared, but the point bypasses another development. Since that game, something with the Seahawks has changed.
They lost at home.
The 17-10 triumph by Arizona Dec. 22 at the Clink shattered the presumption of invincibility. The game was not a failure of will as much as it was a succumbing to human nature in sports. Making the discovery of vulnerability during the regular season is preferable. You may have read that the playoffs are do-or-die.
Again, we turn to Sherman for counsel about the value in defeat.
“I definitely think it is,” he said. “I think it is for guys who have become complacent and just expect to walk in and win. A lot of us hadn’t become complacent, and went out there and played a hard game. I think (the loss) really opened eyes of everybody, including the fans, to know that you have to show up every week.
“(Opponents) are not just going to come in here and bow down and say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to win this one because we’re in CenturyLink,’ especially in the playoffs. These guys want to win the Super Bowl just as bad as we do.”
You can believe Sherman or not, but I tend to think the Seahawks have had their dope-slap about merely surfing the audio waves in SoDo. You better be ready to swim to shore.
And the Saints have ridden their one-trick pony.
Seahawks 24, Saints 17.