By Brent Stecker
They said not to expect the same game when the Saints rolled into CenturyLink Field for the second time this season.
In one way that was the right expectation, considering the Saints kept it a lot closer in their 23-15 divisional-round playoff loss to the Seahawks compared to their 34-7 defeat on "Monday Night Football" last month. But in the end, the story was much the same – New Orleans' offense struggled to get anything going, and it was the biggest reason the Saints' season ended on Saturday.
While the loss on Dec. 2 was one of the worst offensive performances in years for the Saints, they still found one way to top it in Saturday's game, which marked the first time since 2002 that they failed to score at all after three quarters of play.
Saints coach Sean Payton said the Seahawks showed more patience than his team, and that was what made Seattle's defense so hard to score against.
"Well, Seattle was playing their defense. One of the things they do a very good job with is they don't do a lot," Payton said. "They're patient, and they force you to be patient. ... I thought we were able to move the ball in spurts, but then there would be something to keep us from taking advantage of middle-field yardage."
New Orleans didn't do much of anything in the first half, especially in the air, with quarterback Drew Brees totaling just 34 of his 309 passing yards before halftime, marking the first time since 2006 that he passed for fewer than 50 yards in the first half.
Furthermore, only running backs had catches until the Saints' final drive of the half, when wide receiver Marques Colston reeled in a 9-yard pass.
"We kinda started slow. You can't do that against a team like that," said running back Darren Sproles, who had five catches for 32 yards. "We dug ourselves a hole fast. You can't do that. Not in the playoffs."
While the offense – and especially Colston – eventually broke out, All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham wasn't a part of it.
Graham, the NFL's leading receiver among tight ends in 2013, made more news with his pregame skirmish with Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin than with his performance. He was targeted six times but had just one catch for 8 yards, which was an even more disappointing performance than when he had three receptions for 42 yards in the previous meeting with Seattle.
Graham's latest quiet game against the Seahawks was especially surprising since Seattle was missing linebacker K.J. Wright, who was largely responsible for holding him down last time.
"We wanted to make sure we had guys in his area," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Graham. "Last time, K.J. did such a good job on him. We thought we needed to adapt a little but, without (Wright's) work out there. (Graham) didn't seem like he had a big game today."
Graham couldn't quite pinpoint what factored into his poor performance.
"I'm not sure if it was something that they did. Drew is going to throw it to the open guy, and if you've got people on you, he's not going to throw it to you," Graham said.
Lone turnover costs Saints again
Typically teams can get away with committing just one turnover in a game. That wasn't the case for the Saints either time they visited Seattle, though.
In both games, Seattle won the turnover differential 1-0. And in both games, it was a fumble recovery by defensive lineman Michael Bennett that accounted for the lone takeaway and resulted in seven points for the Seahawks.
New Orleans was held scoreless through three quarters on Saturday for the first time since 2002. (AP)
"It's critical that we take care of the football. We can't help them out," Ingram said. "I fumbled it on their side of the field, and they went and scored a touchdown. It's my responsibility to take care of the football. I didn't do it on that drive, and it cost us. I lost it in a critical moment."
The turnover margin loomed large after the game considering New Orleans was eight points within Seattle when time expired.
"We played a lot better today than we did then (on Dec. 2). We still ended up on the losing side of the turnover ratio, which resulted in seven points for them that week, and it resulted in seven points today for them," Brees said. "Obviously this game was much closer and that becomes a big difference."
Frustration over final play
The Saints had a shot to tie the game in the final moments after recovering an onsides kick at their own 41 while trailing by eight points with 26 seconds to go. But three plays into the drive, Colston committed an all-time blunder.
|• Recap | Stats | Photos | Postgame interviews||• O'Neil: What We Learned||• O'Neil: Another nail-biting finish for Seahawks||• Henderson: Harvin roughed up | Carroll's take||• Henderson: Marshawn Lynch sets playoff record||• Huard: Breaking down Lynch's first touchdown||• O'Neil: Irvin, Graham square off during warmups|
Payton wouldn't address the play in his postgame interview, but it appeared he wasn't pleased with how Colston handled it.
"We'll look at the film. Next question," Payton said.
Weather gets to Saints' kicker
While crowd noise had an impact as it always does at CenturyLink Field, an even bigger factor was the weather – which was an unpredictable mix of gusty winds and driving rain. It wreaked havoc on Brees' attempts to throw downfield, especially in the first half, but it also had a big part in kicker Shayne Graham's two missed field goals.
"It gusted at different times, always blowing in different directions," said Graham, who hit a 32-yard game-winning field goal as time expired a week earlier in frigid Philadelphia. "Of course (weather) is a factor. You've got to kick it harder into the wind. When you do that, it's just a matter that you've still got to execute. ... You have to execute, and I didn't execute."