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National Columnist

Saints try tough act with Seahawks, pay playoff-life price in Seattle

The Saints managed to KO Percy Harvin, but that's about the only result their tactics gained. (USATSI)
The Saints managed to KO Percy Harvin, but that's about the only result their tactics gained. (USATSI)

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SEATTLE -- The Saints picked a fight in the wrong alley. They showed up Saturday at CenturyLink Field with no self-awareness, fooling themselves into thinking they were the tougher team in the stadium, and they weren't. Not this stadium, home of the Seattle Seahawks, who are nasty anywhere but damn near unbeatable at home, where they made themselves comfortable amid ear-splitting noise and sheets of rain and gusts of wind en route to a 23-15 victory that propelled Seattle into one more home game -- the NFC Championship Game, next Sunday.

"We love it when teams try to get physical with us," Seahawks receiver Golden Tate said. "They tried to get outside of themselves and be tougher than us -- and you're not going to be tougher than us."

Maybe not anywhere, but definitely not at CenturyLink Field, which was built with cruel intentions. Between the roof covering 70 percent of the facility but none of the field -- meaning crowd noise has few escape routes while rain has only the field to pelt -- and the seats crammed close to the field and every surface covered in hard surfaces to make sure the noise ricochets instead of being absorbed, the Seahawks play in the loudest stadium in the world. They have a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it. Since 2002, nobody in the NFL has more home victories than the Seahawks.

And this is who, and this is where, the Saints tried to a deliver a message of toughness. The Saints, for god's sake. A finesse team that throws for 5,000 yards on offense and forces few turnovers on defense. The Saints walked into CenturyLink Field and tried to punk the Seahawks.

And after it was over, after the Seahawks scored the first 16 points and led 23-8 after 59 1/2 minutes, Tate had something to say about the Saints' tactics.

"Don't do that," Tate said. "Seriously -- don't do that."

The Saints did it, starting the foolishness nearly two hours before kickoff when tight end Jimmy Graham, who plays a beautiful game, tried to get ugly. He wandered onto the Seahawks' side of the field, attracted their attention and then wouldn't leave.

"I thought it was disrespectful," Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "I asked him to move. He didn't. I asked him to go back to his side of the field. He's saying stuff like, 'I'm Jimmy.'

"I'm like, 'You're what?' "

Graham grabbed the knit cap off Irvin's head then and came back for more shortly before kickoff, taunting the Seahawks on their side of the field in their stadium. It's the sort of thing that might work in October against someone like the Rams -- no offense, St. Louis -- but it was never, ever going to work in January in Seattle, where Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has unlocked the key to making his team care like college kids while playing with the ferocity of professionals.

But it didn't end with Graham's pregame friskiness. On the Seahawks' first possession, the Saints defense tried to send more messages. On Seattle's second play from scrimmage safety Rafael Bush lowered his shoulder and drove it into Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin's head, sending Harvin to the locker room for concussion tests. Three plays later another Saints safety, Roman Harper, leveled Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin and loomed over him, menacingly.

"I just wanted to set the tone," Bush said. "We just wanted to be the more physical team, and for the most part I think we did that."

Maybe. Just not the part on the scoreboard.

At the end of that tone-setting first drive, Seattle kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead -- which is how this game went. The Saints tried to be tough. The Seahawks shrugged and kept scoring.

"We go against the toughest defense in the league every day in practice," Tate said. "You're not going to be tougher on [game day] than we see during the week in practice."

To the Saints' credit -- or shame -- they succeeded in knocking Harvin out of the game. Slobber-knocking football is one thing, but administering a concussion is a life-altering turn of events, and on two occasions the Saints hit Harvin hard enough to send him to the locker room for concussion testing. The first time was Bush's illegal hit to Harvin's head. Harvin, an oft-injured playmaker who played only one game in the regular season, returned and made several big plays before being knocked back into the locker room, and out of the game, by a forearm shiver to the back of the neck by Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins late in the first half.

Harvin was perhaps the most important player in the first half. The 15-yard penalty he drew on Bush on the first drive put the Seahawks into Steven Hauschka field-goal range, leading to the 3-0 edge. The margin became 6-0, and after a fumble by Saints running back Mark Ingram deep inside Saints territory on the first play of the second quarter, Harvin darted around the edge for 9 yards, reaching the Saints 15. On the next play Marshawn Lynch made two cuts to reach the end zone for a 13-0 lead.

Two possession later, Harvin outjumped Saints cornerback Corey White for a 16-yard catch on third-and-8, extending a drive that ended -- one play after Jenkins knocked Harvin out of the game with a concussion -- with another Hauschka field goal for a 16-0 lead at the half.

"Great player," Wilson said of Harvin. "I hope we have him next week."

The Seahawks' offense slowed without Harvin -- they scored 16 points in the first half, seven in the second when he didn't play -- because Wilson wasn't able to supplement the ferocious running of Lynch (28 carries, 140 yards and two touchdowns) with a consistent passing game. Wilson was 9 for 18 for 103 yards, a 67.6 passer rating and three sacks taken. Given that, this game was there for the taking for the Saints ...

... but the Saints forgot who they are.

The Saints tried to be tough, not just Graham meatheading his way through the pregame and the safeties' head-hunting of Harvin but also coach Sean Payton calling for run after run after run, a nice idea on a rainy day for any team but the Saints, who win because they have one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. But Drew Brees threw for only 34 yards in the first half, his lowest total in eight seasons with New Orleans, because Payton was content to hand it off 15 times for 79 yards, a wonderful 5.3-yard average that yielded zero points.

Not until the Seahawks had a commanding second-half lead did Payton unleash Brees, who threw it 31 times for 275 yards in the final 30 minutes. Brees was in a rhythm, but it was too late. He drove the Saints 80 yards for a touchdown with 26 seconds left to make the score 23-15, and the Saints recovered the onside kick when it bounced off Tate, but it was too late. Brees had time for only one pass -- a completion of 8 yards, Graham's aforementioned only catch -- before completing his last throw, to Marques Colston, who was flagged for a forward lateral.

Game over.

But the Saints, they delivered a message. They delivered it to the rest of the NFL:

Don't come into Seattle and try to bully the Seahawks. Don't be stupid.

 
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