Will it turn out that a fluke of the schedule ends up being what decides who wins the Super Bowl this coming February in New York? It’s well possible–certainly the consensus view is that it will at least decide the NFC champ. The Seattle Seahawks host the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) with the winner taking the inside track to the #1 seed.
I understand where the consensus view comes from. In spite of recent championship teams (the last three in fact) doing it the hard way on the road, the overall record of home teams in the playoffs remains very good. Furthermore, these two teams in particular seem to have as big a home/road disparity as any contender. On their own field, each is unstoppable. Away from home, they become a pretty good team, but nothing spectacular.
Then, assuming there would be another New Orleans-Seattle game in January, the contrasts in home environment are sharp. The Saints throw it all over the place with Drew Brees indoors, while the Seahawks relish their punishing ground attack behind Marshawn Lynch and their physical cornerback play, led by Richard Sherman, all in the rain and wind of the Pacific Northwest.
So yes, I understand why this game is seen as the de facto NFC Championship Game, but I’m not ready to go quite that far myself.
New Orleans is a much better defensive team this year, more capable of winning outdoors–and whether it’s Monday Night or later in January, they’ll almost surely have to. On Seattle’s side, Russell Wilson might not be Brees, the second-year Seahawk quarterback can still move the ball and the last I checked, there’s nothing stopping Lynch from running wild indoors. The team with homefield in January would surely be the favorite, but not an unbeatable one.
Finally, let’s not forget that there are some other contenders. Could Detroit go to New Orleans and win? Why not? How about San Francisco up in Seattle? The 49ers last two trips there have been atrocious, but there’s nothing structurally about Jim Harbaugh’s team that makes them unfit to win in the cold and rain. Let’s not reduce the whole NFC race to Seattle and New Orleans just yet.
That’s why, even though I’m really looking forward to tomorrow night’s Battle In Seattle, I would still consider Denver-Kansas City late this afternoon a bigger game. The loser of that game is staring at a 5-seed and three road games. The loser of Saints-Seahawks is staring at a 2-seed, a week off and home game before going on the road.
Of course both of Monday Night’s teams have division races they have to survive, but they’ll control their own destiny in those come Tuesday morning regardless.
I don’t mean to debunk the importance of the game–I’d still rather have the 1-seed than not–but simply argue for keeping this game in perspective.
Seattle is a (-4.5) favorite, suggesting oddsmakers see them as slightly better than New Orleans on a neutral surface, plus a field goal for homefield. Although given the homefield disparity discussed above, it’s also possible that the entire number is based exclusively on who’s at home. The moneylines for outright wins–what we use here at TheSportsNotebook in making picks–has the Seahawks at (-215) and the Saints at (+180).
It was a big upset back in 2010 when New Orleans traveled to Seattle as the defending Super Bowl champ and lost a first-round playoff game to a team that won its division at 7-9. It won’t be this time. The Seahawks match up well–the Saints’ defense is better against the pass than the run, and the Seahawks’ D is the same, which works well for Seattle.
In spite of that, I’ve got a good feeling about this New Orleans team, and they remain my pick to win the Super Bowl. That likely means they have to win in this venue sooner or later. My money’s on sooner.