|Marshawn Lynch helped deliver the knockout blows to the stunned Saints last January. (Getty Images)|
METAIRIE, La. -- Last year during the bye week between the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLV, two reporters and I chatted for more than an hour with Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his son, Blake, who is also a Saints assistant, while standing at the top of a steep hill at a high school stadium in Mobile, Ala.
If you're in Mobile at that time, you're at the Senior Bowl. You're not preparing for the Super Bowl.
"I'm really pissed that I'm sitting here at the Senior Bowl," Williams said during our chat. "Because you know that we had an off day. Had we not had that day ..."
That day was when Marshawn Lynch left Saints defenders scattered all over Qwest Field like a busted bag of Skittles in what has become the lasting moment of New Orleans' 2010 season. It's the day the Saints endured one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks stunned the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints in the NFC wild-card round.
"I've watched [the Lynch run] once when I was grading, and every time it comes on TV I turn the channel. ... I don't shut it off [the memory] very well. I never have shut it off very well," Williams said.
Williams later added: "If it doesn't hurt as a coach and it doesn't hurt as a player, then we've got the wrong player."
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The Saints enter this year's postseason in a very similar setting. They're double-digit favorites going into Saturday night's wild-card game against the Lions in the Superdome. The Saints knocked off the Lions a month ago just as the Saints had eased past the Seahawks earlier in the 2010 season.
There's a difference this season.
This year's Saints team is the hottest in the NFL, having won eight straight games, wrapping up the season 13-3 and setting at least a dozen single-season offensive records in the Week 17 win over the Panthers.
And yet that Seahawks game still hurts the Saints players. It hurts bad. It's branded into the Saints' memory banks. It has been an unsolicited topic for numerous players when fielding questions from the media all season. They bring it up, despite what safety Roman Harper said Monday when asked about the Seattle loss.
"You guys will talk about it, but other than that, it's a different team, a different year," said Harper, who was deemed the goat of the Seattle loss after undoubtedly his worst game of the season. "We'll have a home game this year instead of on the road in a tough place like Seattle.
"We're focused and we're determined. We're healthier this year. Last year we went into Seattle kind of banged up, and this year we're not. We're going in a totally different team right now. We're just trying to keep things rolling and keep staying focused and continue preparing for Detroit."
Harper is right. This team is in much better shape physically than last year's squad, and they're simply a much better team with the emergence of pieces like tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera sent out a warning shot following his team's blowout loss to the Saints in Week 17 for the rest of the playoff teams about what type of challenge the Saints present: "When you put the tape on and watch how they played against Atlanta and watch how they played against us, the first thing that you say to yourself is, 'I hope we don't have to play them.' That's what's going to happen."
Drew Brees and the Saints have done a tremendous job of making history in 2011. Now they hope they don't repeat history Saturday night. So does Sean Payton show his team a montage of the carnage from last year's playoff disaster, just once, for emphasis or as a warning this week?
"It's a fair question," Payton said Monday. "I think those are lessons learned, and yet you understand in our game that each week when you line up to play in the regular season or the postseason, the only difference being that in the postseason it's not a best-of-5 or a best-of-7 type series -- there's a finality to it.
"As we get closer to playing Detroit, we've played them once already, and we certainly understand their strengths and what we feel they do very well. Obviously they've had an outstanding season. We're going to have to have a good week of practice and we're going to have to do a lot of things well to get ready for this game in a short period of time."
Payton also stressed how much it should help this Saints team avoid such a letdown having gone through the ultimate humbler last season. He said his team endured its crisis moment already this season with a loss to the then-winless Rams in Week 8. The Saints went on an eight-game winning streak after that.
Last year's alarm rang on the long plane ride home from Seattle.
"Most guys at this point ... I think going into that game last year, I don't think we didn't have that understanding," tackle Zach Strief said. "These aren't really playoffs that determine it. It's one and out and you get one shot at it. This is a game that could turn quickly on you. Us playing well the last few doesn't give us anything but confidence going in. It doesn't give us a win, having played well.
"We understand the importance of it and I think there's some leadership on this team. Fortunately the core of this team has been in this situation before that you don't really need to go back and point it out to remember it.
"I think everybody remembers pretty well what happened last year."