Ambush awaits Saints in Seattle

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:46 PM ET

SEATTLE — In the what-have-you-done lately world of the NFL, the defending champions find themselves back at the start of another Super Bowl tournament, right where they want to be.

Okay, not exactly. Actually they would like to be back home in New Orleans with their feet up, healing their wounds, watching the wildcard teams knock the you-know-what out of each other, waiting for the survivors to come to them.

That futile wish aside, at least the Saints have a spot on the starting line. Since 1967, there have been 13 teams — four in the last decade — that won a Super Bowl one year but didn’t even make the playoffs the next year. There was a time earlier this year when the Saints looked as if they might be No. 14.

“Oh yeah, it’s true,” said Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock, who was part of Indianapolis’ 2006 team that won the 2007 Super Bowl. “That next year is way tougher than the year you win it.”

It’s probably not that surprising, given how many things have to go right for a team to be the last one still standing at the end of a 30-team pursuit. As soon as you’re identified as a Super Bowl champion, a great big bullseye appears on your chest.

The Saints learned that this year. By the end of Week 7, when the Cleveland Browns waltzed out of the Superdome with a 30-17 win, the Saints were a mediocre 4-3, decimated by injuries and getting sympathy from nobody.

“Certainly, earlier in the season, you get everyone’s best game,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “You become somewhat of a measuring stick because you were the team that won a Super Bowl a year ago.”

The Saints responded to that crisis by winning six games in a row on their way to an 11-5 record and a wildcard berth. That brings them to QWest Field in the somewhat strange role of massive 10-point favourites over the homestanding Seahawks who stumbled into the playoffs with a 7-9 record, best in the woeful NFC West.

While this would seem a relative “gimme” for the Saints Saturday afternoon, winning on the road is seldom a formula for Super Bowl champions. Likewise, winning outdoors in the cold hasn’t been part of New Orleans’ winning formula.

In games where the temperature is less than 5C, the Saints have won just two of their past eight. Saturday, it’s expected to be two degrees at kickoff.

The Saints’ injury list isn’t as long as it was early this season, but they are going to play this game without some important players. Their two primary running backs, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas are gone for the year. Young tight end Jimmy Graham is out as is safety Malcolm Jenkins.

Still, they have Drew Brees and he’s one of those players who usually finds a way to win. Earlier this year, he found himself trying to do too much at times, forcing throws and taking chances. He threw for more yards (4,620), and had 33 touchdowns, but he was intercepted 22 times, his NFL career high.

“That might be human nature,” he said. “I’m telling myself that it’s about everyone, not just one person. As a quarterback, you are responsible for a lot. No need to force things, just play the game and play within yourself to execute the offence and the play that was called.”

With the exception of the New England Patriots, who won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005, 10 of the past 11 champions failed to make it to their respective conference title game the next season.

“Because you are a champion, if a team beats you, it’s like they proved something to themselves and to the rest of the league,” said Brock. “And it’s like that every game.”

The Seahawks are one of those teams and, despite their lack of credentials, they pose a great danger to the Saints. With absolutely no expectations — even their own fans don’t think much of their chances — they have nothing on the line.

If they lose ... well, duh. But if they win, it will be an upset for the ages.

So far, the Saints have shown the kind of poise and resilience that should see them through this potential ambush. But they’re still the champs and that bullseye is still visible.


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