Road to Super Bowl looks like it goes through Seattle

SEATTLE — On New Orleans’ first play from scrimmage Monday night, Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane found himself unblocked on his way into the Saints’ backfield.

When you watch a replay of the first-down play, it’s clear that something went seriously wrong. Center Brian De La Puente found himself at the second level with nobody to block, so he was in the odd position of circling back to get into the play, only it was far too late. By then, Mebane had chucked Pierre Thomas to the ground for a 4-yard loss, setting up a Saints’ three-and-out, and before the Saints knew what hit them, they were down 17-0 in a much-hyped NFC showdown.

While I’m no expert on offensive line play, I do know it’s generally frowned upon for an interior defensive lineman to go into the backfield unblocked on a running play. So it was hardly surprising to hear Saints coach Sean Payton explain after the game that there had indeed been a mix-up on the play.

“The first play of the game was a run that went the other direction,” Payton said. “Not everyone obviously got the redirect. The noise impacts certain plays. I don’t know if that was the difference tonight. It can be the difference on third down. It can certainly be the difference when it comes to protection.”

And if an opposing coach is willing to admit crowd noise had any impact at all, you can safely bet it was indeed a big factor. Seattle’s defense is good enough to hang with anybody on any field, but it has become evident over the past couple of years that the Seahawks can take their game to a whole different level at CenturyLink Field.

This, of course, is relevant this week because, thanks to Monday’s 34-7 victory, the Seahawks are close to a lock to earn the NFC’s No. 1 seed, which means postseason home games. Yes, there are scenarios in which the Seahawks could still blow the top seed, but all of those involve them going 1-3 or 0-4 to close the season, and are you going to bet that a team that is 18-2 since the middle of last season is going to have a losing record in the next month? Me neither.

Even the Saints, who came into Week 13 as the team with the best chance to top Seattle in the NFC, seem resigned to the fact that they’ll have to figure out a way to win at CenturyLink Field if they want to go to the Super Bowl.

“As of right now the road to the Super Bowl looks like it is traveling through here,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said Monday night in Seattle.

And while the Seahawks will remain focused on the task at hand — Sunday’s game at San Francisco — they also understand what home field advantage would mean in the postseason.

“It’s a big deal,” safety Earl Thomas said. “Playing in front of a great fanbase like this, it’s going to be hard on opposing offenses to communicate. It’s going to make them very uncomfortable, and that’s what we want.”

So what do the Seahawks have to do to make their likely No. 1 seed into a reality? For starters, they want to wrap up the division with a victory (or tie) in San Francisco, which would not only clinch the NFC West, but also a first-round bye.

Yet even if Seattle loses to the 49ers, the Seahawks still have a good chance to earn the No. 1 seed. If Seattle wins two of its final four games — at San Francisco (8-4), at New York (5-7), vs. Arizona (7-5) and vs. St. Louis (5-7) — it will be the NFC’s top team regardless of what other teams do.

If the Seahawks win only one of their last four, which would give them a 12-4 record, they would still be the No. 1 seed so long as New Orleans and Carolina, both 9-3, each lose a single game, a decent bet considering the two NFC South powers still play each other twice.

With so many scenarios favoring the Seahawks at this point, the rest of the NFC has been put on notice that to go to the Super Bowl, somebody will have to do what no road team has done since December of 2011 — win at CenturyLink Field.

“They’re pretty good, obviously, on paper, and obviously in the game they were real good tonight,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said of Seattle defense. “At home they play very, very special.”

Monday’s victory did clinch Seattle’s third playoff berth in four seasons under Pete Carroll, but the Seahawks hope that is only a footnote on the way to much bigger goals. And two of those goals, the division title and a No. 1 seed, are much closer to reality following Monday’s drubbing of the Saints.

“We’re a playoff team, which is great to know, but that’s not our goal and we don’t talk that way,” Carroll said. “You’ll never hear these guys say, ‘Oh boy, we want to get in the playoffs.’ That’s not the goal we set.

“We want to win this division, and that division gets us a chance to play at home, and that’s what we’re after, and then we’ll talk about what’s next.”

What’s next, barring a shocking late-season collapse, is a very tough road for the rest of the NFC.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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