Countdown to kickoff

Postseason greetings from Qwest Field, where the 2010 NFL playoffs will get underway in a couple of hours when the Seahawks host the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in a wild-card game.

That’s the 11-5 Saints, who play their home games in a domed stadium and had a first-round bye in the playoffs last season, vs. the 7-9 Seahawks, who were not only sitting at home when the postseason started a year ago but getting ready to play for their third coach in as many seasons as Pete Carroll was brought in to replace Jim Mora, who had replaced Mike Holmgren the previous January.

What a difference 12 months can make.

The big question today, of course, is what can the Seahawks do to come up with a different outcome than in their Week 11 game in New Orleans – when the Saints won 35-19?

For starters, there’s this stadium and the weather. The Saints will have to deal with the noise generated by the 12th Man today, as we discussed Friday in this story. Then there’s the weather, with the forecast calling for a chance of showers and temperatures in the low 40s – but a feels-like factor in the high 30s.

Drew Brees, the Saints’ Pro Bowl QB and MVP from last season’s Super Bowl, is 3-5 as a starter with the Saints and San Diego Chargers in games where the temperature was less than 40 degrees at kickoff. That’s in stark contrast to his en fuego performance against the Seahawks in Week 11, when Brees completed 29 of 43 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns in the Superdome.

Playing at Qwest, especially if the defense can play as it did in last week’s division-clinching victory over the Rams, also should help. The 6-foot Brees had 28 passes either intercepted (eight) or defensed (20) by linemen and linebackers during the regular season. Against the Rams, the Seahawks sacked Sam Bradford three times (2½ by DE Raheem Brock); intercepted him once (LB Will Herring); and got their hands on six other passes (three by D-linemen or linebackers).

The Seahawks, meanwhile, are going back to Matt Hasselbeck, who is 4-1 in playoff games at Qwest. Hasselbeck sat out the game against the Rams because of strained muscles in his left hip and buttock, so backup Charlie Whitehurst stepped in and stepped up. But Carroll told Hasselbeck on Monday that he would start this game, if healthy.

Hasselbeck is not only back, he seems to have regained some of his swagger. While talking to reporters for the only time during the week on Thursday, the veteran QB had some fun with the Seahawks finally getting coverage from the national media, the talk that the Seahawks shouldn’t be in this position because of their record and what the Saints might have been thinking as they headed West on a short work week.

The Seahawks are healthy for this game, and the Saints can’t make such a statement. For the only time this season, the Seahawks listed no one on their end-of-the-week injury report Friday – although DE Red Bryant, DE-DT Junior Siavii, OGs Max Unger and Chester Pitts, TE Chris Baker, special teams captain Roy Lewis and WR Deon Butler are on injured reserve. But the Seahawks have had time to adjust to playing without them.

The Saints placed RBs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas on IR this week, so the running game will be in the legs of former Seahawk Julius Jones (inside) and Reggie Bush (outside), the former USC Heisman Trophy winner under Carroll. And they’ll also be without FS Malcolm Jenkins.

There are so many other storylines in this game: A Saints offense that led the league in third-down efficiency going against a Seahawks defense that had problems getting off the field on third downs in the nine losses during the regular season; Seahawks KOR-PR Leon Washington going against Saints coverage units that ranked 24th and 28th in the league during the regular season; offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and Hasselbeck going against the innovative and aggressive defensive schemes of Saints coordinator Gregg Williams; a Seahawks running game that finally found its legs in the second half last week running into a Saints defense that ranked 16th against the run during the regular season.

The Seahawks have nothing to lose in this game – where they weren’t even expected to be and no one is giving them a chance to win. Playing loose, and playing their game, is the best way to approach it – and the way Carroll wants them to approach it.

As Hasselbeck said, “We really don’t focus on the opponent; we really don’t focus on who we’re playing. Actually, it’s kind of funny because Pete always says, ‘Hey, I don’t care who they bring in here – they could bring in the World Champs!’ And the irony is they really are bringing in the World Champs, so there you go.”

Get ready to sit back – or sit on the edge of your seat – and see how it plays out, as the playoffs return to Qwest Field for the first time since 2007.

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