By Danny O'Neil
What was supposed to be a showdown between two conference heavyweights became a showcase for the Seahawks.
That was true for Seattle's defense, which kept the Saints from gaining a first down until the final minute of the first quarter. It was true for the Seahawks' offense, which never punted in the first half and scored on five of its first six possessions.
Not much went wrong for the Seahawks in their 34-7 victory over New Orleans, Seattle clinching its third playoff berth in four seasons under coach Pete Carroll in what was an absolutely overwhelming performance against a Saints team that entered the game 9-2, the second-best record in the NFC.
The Seahawks scored 17 points in the first quarter, their most in the opening period of any game in five years. The Seahawks scored a touchdown on defense, Michael Bennett returning the fumble that was forced by Cliff Avril in the first quarter. They scored on a play in which tight end Kellen Davis tipped a ball that fullback Derrick Coleman caught for a touchdown.
And by the time the fourth quarter began with Seattle leading 34-7, the Seahawks had served a pretty clear notice: The NFC playoffs will go through Seattle.
The significance: Seattle has the league's best overall record at 11-1, a three-game lead in the division over San Francisco and a two-game lead over the Saints for the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Play of the game: The Saints faced third down on their second possession when Seattle's two biggest free-agent signings combined to produce the Seahawks' first touchdown. Avril came roaring off the edge on a third-down rush, knocking the ball out of Drew Brees' hand in what was ruled a fumble. Bennett caught the ball, returning it 22 yards for a touchdown.
Turning point: Not sure whether it was Seattle's 82-yard drive for a field goal with 5:04 left in the second quarter or the 88-yard touchdown drive in the final 2 minutes, but between those two scoring drives, Seattle made a pretty stirring response to that Saints touchdown that cut Seattle's lead to 17-7.
Player of the game: Russell Wilson passed for 226 yards in the first half, his second most in the opening half in his career. He threw for three touchdowns and remained unbeaten in 14 starts at home in the NFL.
The good: Seattle scored first, Steven Hauschka kicking a field goal midway through the first quarter. Hauschka added a second field goal with 3:41 left in the first half, his 17th consecutive field-goal conversion this season. That is the second longest streak in franchise history. Seattle scored first for the ninth time in 12 games this season. The Seahawks scored 17 points in the first quarter, their most in the opening period of any game since Sept. 21, 2008 against St. Louis. Seattle tight end Zach Miller caught a 60-yard pass in the first quarter, his longest reception since joining the Seahawks in 2011. He scored on a 2-yard throw later that drive.
The bad: Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's second-quarter touchdown was his 12th this season. He has a chance to break Rob Gronkowski's NFL record for tight ends, which is 17.
The ugly: The Saints didn't gain a first down until the final play of the first quarter, at which point they trailed 17-0. Cornerback Richard Sherman was penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness for his hit on Saints receiver Kenny Stills in the second quarter in the end zone. Brees had scrambled from the pocket, which Sherman argued gave him the right to hit Stills. However, Stills wasn't looking at him.
Seattle: Tight end Kellen Davis left the field in the fourth quarter to be evaluated for a concussion. New Orleans: Offensive tackle Zach Strief left the game with a leg injury in the second half.
Seattle: WR Percy Harvin, CB Brandon Browner, RB Christine Michael, OT Michael Bowie, OT Caylin Hauptmann, DE Benson Mayowa, DT Jordan Hill. New Orleans: QB Ryan Griffin, RB Khiry Robinson, CB Trevin Wade, LB Keyunta Dawson, OT Terron Armstead, WR Nick Toon, DE Glenn Foster.