SEATTLE — On a day of drenching rain and gusting wind, the Seattle Seahawks overcame the nasty winter weather to take a big lead into the late minutes against the New Orleans Saints.
But in the closing moments, the bigger challenge came from the Saints themselves.
Trailing by 15 points with less than three minutes to play, New Orleans scored one touchdown and then got the ball back with an onside kick to turn an apparent one-sided romp into a down-to-the-wire thriller. But Seattle’s defense held off the Saints in the final seconds to close out a 23-15 NFL divisional playoff victory before a raucous crowd at CenturyLink Field.
The win sends the Seahawks into next week’s NFC championship game, again at CenturyLink Field. Seattle will face the winner of today’s San Francisco-Carolina game for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 2 in East Rutherford, N.J.
Most of the Seahawks say they have no preference about next week’s opponent. “Whoever’s coming in here, just be ready to play,” said Seattle defensive end Red Bryant. “Because we damn sure will be.”
“We’re in a perfect position,” Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate said. “And we have the guys to go as far as we can go. We just need to have a great week of practice and welcome whoever is coming to CenturyLink next week.”
“It’s such a great opportunity to still be playing right now and we’re grateful,” added offensive tackle Russell Okung. “We can’t wait for next week.”
The Seahawks won Saturday on the strength of two touchdown runs by Marshawn Lynch, who finished with 140 yards on 28 carries, and three field goals by place-kicker Steven Hauschka. Conversely, New Orleans failed to cash in two pivotal scoring chances when kicker Shayne Graham missed twice — both tries were into a strong south-to-north wind — from 45 and 48 yards.
New Orleans finished with decided edges in first downs (25-13) and total yards (409-277), but that was because Seattle built a 16-0 halftime lead and then prudently became conservative in the second half.
“I like that we took care of the football on a day like this,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “We ran the football like we wanted to, Marshawn had a big game for us, and the defense just wouldn’t let them have anything.”
“That’s the kind of complete game you need in the playoffs to win,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “And when you get in a grind-out game like this, you have to make some big plays. Everybody came through. It was a collective team effort, and that’s how you win in the playoffs.”
Early in the game, Seattle’s defense stopped the Saints time after time, and even gave the offense a short field with a fumble recovery by defensive end Michael Bennett. That second-quarter turnover led to a two-play, 24-yard touchdown drive, with Lynch bursting through the middle for a 15-yard score.
Hauschka, who had two field goals with the wind in the first quarter, added a short kick into the wind right before halftime.
The third quarter and much of the fourth was a field-position game for the Seahawks, who seemed content to use clock and let their defense continue stopping the Saints. But New Orleans finally reached the end zone early in the fourth period, and a two-point conversion made the score 16-8.
With 2:40 to play in the game, Lynch took a handoff around left end, got a big block from wide receiver Jermaine Kearse at the corner, and then shoved a stiff-arm into the face of Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis inside the 10-yard line for a touchdown run of 31 yards. Hauschka’s extra point gave Seattle a seemingly comfortable 23-8 margin.
Instead, New Orleans drove the length of the field with quarterback Drew Brees tossing a 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marques Colston on a fourth-and-6 play with 26 seconds remaining. The extra point cut the deficit to eight points.
Everyone knew an onside kick was coming, and Tate was in an excellent position to make a game-clinching recovery. Instead, the ball bounced off his chest and Colston recovered, giving the Saints one last chance to tie the score.
Brees completed one pass, spiked the ball to stop the clock, and then passed to Colston, who tried a razzle-dazzle pass across the field to teammate Darren Sproles. But the ball was thrown forward, a penalty, and the play was blown dead.
By NFL rules, there was a 10-second runoff after the penalty, ending the game.
“That was an interesting finish to this game,” Carroll said. “We gave up a couple of plays on their (last) scoring drive that were really nice plays by them. That’s Drew Brees and he’s going to do some of that. But we just kind of held on to where we were bleeding the clock.”
The Seahawks will now wait to find out next week’s opponent, and then prepare for the second NFC championship home game in franchise history. The last time was in 2006, when Seattle defeated Carolina to reach Super Bowl XL.
“To be in the NFC championship game means a lot,” said Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who completed nine of 18 passes for 103 yards. “It’s obviously a testament to our hard work and preparation as a whole.
“But the big thing for us is, we haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “We’ve got 60 minutes of football (next weekend) … and we have to play the best football we can possibly play come the NFC championship game, whoever we play.”