New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.
TV: NBC, Tom Hammond, Mike Mayock, Alex Flanagan
Keys to the game
The Saints rolled up 494 yards of total offense in the regular-season meeting, and should be able to spread the field and move the ball at will against the Seahawks' thin secondary. One concern is that physical RB Chris Ivory wore Seattle down with 99 yards on 23 carries. He and Pierre Thomas are on injured reserve, so Reggie Bush and former Seahawk Julius Jones need to provide enough in the ground game to prevent the offense from becoming too one-dimensional.
Seahawks QBs Matt Hasselbeck (strained hip) and Charlie Whitehurst split practice reps this week, and the starter could be a game-time decision. That at least forces the Saints to prepare for different styles, as Whitehurst is far more mobile. Seattle started 10 offensive line combinations during the regular season and the ground game finished 31st in the NFL. But offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates got RBs Justin Forsett and Leon Washington the ball in space off various screens last week.
The Saints haven't won a road playoff game in their 44-year history. ... The Seahawks, the first team to reach the playoffs with a losing record, won the NFC West for the fifth time in seven years. ... Brees has thrown for 4,000-plus yards in five consecutive seasons.
Inside the Saints
If the Saints need a road map to figure out how they're going to get back to the Super Bowl, which will likely require them winning three straight games away from the Superdome, they have to look no further than their locker room to find the way.
Reserve linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who was signed by the Saints as a free agent on Dec. 8 because of injuries at the position, has traveled that playoff road before while with the New York Giants in 2007.
The Giants, who won at Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay that year to reach Super Bowl XLII, are one of only three teams to get to the NFL's title game by winning three straight road playoff games. The other two were the 1985 New England Patriots and 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, who, like the Giants, won it all.
"It really just comes down to motivation, if you're focused on the right thing," said Mitchell. "You're gonna hear a lot about the record, about the weather and all that stuff. But try to stay focused on the right thing, and let's bring this thing back down South."
Mitchell said the Giants took a lot of momentum into the 2007 postseason despite losing their regular-season finale to the Patriots. He said that could help the Saints, too, after their 17-14 win over the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome in Week 16.
"Momentum was huge for us going into it," he said. "And I think it was big (for the Saints) getting a win at Atlanta, proving we could go on the road and do it."
Inside the Seahawks
After two days of showing his poker face while dealing with the media, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll finally came clean, announcing after practice on Thursday that veteran Matt Hasselbeck will start on Saturday over reserve quarterback Charlie Whitehurst against New Orleans in the NFC wildcard game at Qwest Field.
Carroll said that he told Hasselbeck he would start this week if he could prove that he was fully recovered from a hip injury he re-aggravated two weeks ago against Tampa Bay.
"I told him earlier in the week he was going to start if he could make it through the week physically," Carroll said. "He's done all of that, so Matt Hasselbeck is going to start the game for us at quarterback.
"Charlie's ready to go as well. Both of those guys split reps during the week so they're prepared, and we'll count on both of them if we need them. But I'm fired up that Matt's going to go."
Carroll said he made the decision after Wednesday's practice and watching the film from practice that Hasselbeck was ready to go. The Seahawks head coach went on to say that Hasselbeck has been the starter all season long, and that he just wanted to make sure that he had recovered from the hip injury.
Carroll said Hasselbeck's playoff experience was a factor in the decision. Hasselbeck is 4-5 in the postseason, including leading the Seahawks to their only Super Bowl appearance five seasons ago.
Hasselbeck confirmed that he was told by Carroll earlier this week that he would start if healthy, and talked about trying to get ready for last week's game against St. Louis.
"What I said to him after that game was, 'Hey, you can handle things however you want to handle them, I'm going to try and get as healthy as I can in the training room and try to give you some options, or just try to give you a choice to make,'" Hasselbeck said. "I feel like I made a lot of progress last week. But I don't think I was able to get to the point where I was able to do everything in the game plan.
"So I made a run at it and I wasn't able to do it. But I think we felt good about Charlie's chances and our plan. And it worked out perfectly."
Hasselbeck said his health was the big question mark heading into this week because he had not had an injury like the hip issue. Hasselbeck also was asked if all the talk percolating around the team about who will be Seattle's starter bothered him.
"I really tried to not pay too much attention to that stuff. It's usually not hard because no one really pays to much attention to us as team," joked Hasselbeck. "I'm serious. So it's usually not hard. When you get near the playoffs, then there's less teams to talk about, and so it gets to be a little bit everywhere. But it hasn't been a big deal, really. More than anything, I've just been trying to get healthy, and I think as a team we're just trying to get our game better."
New York Jets (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer
Keys to the game
Jets QB Mark Sanchez threw the ball with more zip in practice this week, but his right shoulder is still a concern — as is his decision-making the second half of the season. New York ideally wants to lean on RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson and let Sanchez manage a controlled passing game. But the Colts' oft-maligned run defense allowed just 3.0 yards per carry the past three weeks. If they can create long passing downs, the edge turns to the Colts and DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis pressuring Sanchez into mistakes.
Jets CB Darrelle Revis is expected to shadow Colts WR Reggie Wayne, who he limited to three catches for 55 yards in the playoffs last year. Problem was, QB Peyton Manning did an excellent job of reading the defense pre-snap and picked the Jets apart for 377 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers. New York believes it has upgraded its secondary, but it still has to blitz heavily in order to generate pressure. That will leave plenty of one-on-one matchups that will determine how big Manning's windows are to throw to.
The Colts have tied the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL record with their ninth consecutive playoff appearance. ... Sanchez had a 66.6 passer rating in the second half of games during the regular season. ... Freeney had seven of his 10 sacks during the regular season this year at home.
Inside the Jets
LaDainian Tomlinson needed 86 yards on the final day of the regular season for the ninth 1,000-yard rushing season of his illustrious career. And even though he hadn't rushed for more than 57 yards in a game since Oct. 11, getting the necessary yardage wasn't all that implausible, considering the Jets were playing the woeful Buffalo rushing defense.
Coach Rex Ryan wanted him to rest. But he wanted to make sure the veteran was on board with the idea. Tomlinson was, and so he sat out against the Bills.
"It would've been great, no question," LT said of the milestone, but I didn't come here to rush for 1,000 yards. I've had a lot of 1,000-yard [seasons] in my career. That's not important to me. What's important to me is playing in this tournament and having that opportunity to win the championship."
And the 31-year-old running back realizes he may not have many more chances to get to his first Super Bowl.
"Any time you have an opportunity like this, they don't come around often," said Tomlinson, in his first year with the Jets after being released by San Diego. "Green and white is what I bleed, and you know it would be awesome to bring a championship here. I'm just so excited about it. I think we've got a great opportunity."
After a fast start to the season, Tomlinson has slowed down in the running game, although he has emerged as a reliable third-down passing option out of the backfield for Mark Sanchez. He had 52, tied for third on the team, during the regular campaign.
"You see the same thing every day" from Tomlinson, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said, referring to the veteran back's professionalism. "Here's a guy that, from the time he got here, from the first off-season practice to today, he has not changed. There's a hunger there. There's a desire. [A championship] is one of the few things, if any, that he hasn't accomplished."
Some observers believe the Jets should utilize Tomlinson and fellow back Shonn Greene in the running game to try to control the clock and limit Indianapolis' amount of possessions.
"If that's going to help keep Peyton Manning off the field, then yeah, I think so," Tomlinson said. "It's something that we definitely want to do, grind out first downs. They know what we do well and they're going to be ready for it. We're going to have to complete some passes and keep the chains moving."
Inside the Colts
In order to win Saturday night's AFC wild-card playoff game with the New York Jets, the Indianapolis Colts have to be able to do two things — run the football and stop the Jets from having success at running the ball.
It sounds relatively simple, but it isn't.
The Colts have struggled most of the year in both categories. Indianapolis ranked 16th in the AFC and 29th overall in running the ball during the regular season, averaging 92.7 yards per game.
And the franchise was 12th in the conference and 25th in the league in stopping the run, giving up an average of 127 yards per outing.
But over the last month, those stats have been turned upside down.
The Colts rushed for 155 yards against Jacksonville, 191 yards in a win over Oakland and had 101 yards in last week's regular-season finale with Tennessee.
Conversely, Indianapolis has allowed 67, 80 and 51 yards rushing the last three weeks.
The reasons for the improvement in both areas are relatively simple — commitment and simplification.
"We have committed ourselves to running it more in December. And you can see how that pays dividends," center Jeff Saturday said. "You see how teams are wearing down and we are getting those bigger runs late. It is just consistency. It is very similar to the passing game."
As for the run defense, middle linebacker Gary Brackett says that the Colts' defense simplified the scheme a bit but it's more than that as well.
"We eliminated some calls, some things that were a little bit confusing. We went back to base [defense] about two or three things and do them well," Brackett said.
"Our mantra has always been that we are going to do what we do better than what the other team does what they do."