Week 13 (12/13): Saints at Seahawks

Tonight's game is about as big as it gets.  The Seahawks right now are the best team in the conference — and, arguably, the best team in the entire league — and their opponent this evening is the #2 team in the NFC, the New Orleans Saints.  And if the Hawks win this one, they'll become the first team this season to clinch a playoff berth, so there's that, too.

In seasons past, the way to beat the Saints was to slow down their offense just enough to give your team time to put up points in bunches against their paper-thin defense, but that's all changed.  New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's schemes has left the Saints with a defense that ranks 3rd in points allowed, first in sack percentage, 5th in touchdown percentage allowed, and 7th in passer rating allowed.

That said, they have an achilles heel.  New Orleans may excel against the pass, but they're allowing opponents to rush for 4.81 yards per carry (only the Chargers and Bears have given up more this year).  Against most opponents, that weakness would be a moderate concern, but against Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson's scrambles it's a potentially fatal flaw.

For the Seahawks, the big question is how Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond's replacements in the secondary will fare against Drew Brees' passing onslaught.  Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor are still patrolling the defensive backfield, but oftentimes a pass defense is only as strong as its weakest member — how many times have you seen teams lose because the opposing QB was able to pick on a backup cornerback all game long?  Byron Maxwell will likely be manning Browner's right CB spot, and he's shown in the past that he has the ability to step up (he doesn't always play up to his potential, mind you, but there's no denying the skill is there), but Thurmond's probable fill-in at nickel back is unclear.  But no matter who gets the nod there (Jeremy Lane? DeShawn Shead? Chris Maragos? Jeron Johnson?), they can count on getting challenged early and often.

Oh, and did I mention that a win tonight means the Seahawks will enjoy a two-game lead for the number one seed with four weeks to go?  Kickoff can't arrive soon enough.