SEATTLE — When they walked off the field in Atlanta last January after blowing their chance to play for the NFC championship in the final seconds, there were varying emotions brewing in the Seattle Seahawks' locker room.
Anger, disappointment and reflection were wide spread. Some, like quarterback Russell Wilson, were already peeking ahead what appeared to be a bright future. Others never wanted to experience those emotions again.
"We never want to feel that feeling again," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said this week. "I think as motivated as New Orleans is from what happened to them the last time they came here, we're just as motivated from what happened in Atlanta. We don't ever want to go there and feel that feeling of regret, of disappointment, of anger, of frustration, of all those things that you felt after that game that you felt like you should have won."
The Seahawks chance at making amends for what happened in last season's playoffs arrives today when they host New Orleans in the NFC divisional playoff.
But now the Seahawks aren't the upstarts with little pressure and limited expectations. They are the top seed in the NFC coming off a 13-3 regular season that matched the best in franchise history and well aware anything short of a trip to the Super Bowl would be a massive disappointment.
After having last week off, the Seahawks say they're ready for this playoff experience.
"When we first got there last year a lot of the guys we didn't know what to expect. We're just young wanting to go out there, have fun and do our best," Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Now we kind of expect the atmosphere we know what we're going into, and we know it's going to be amped up so we're going to be just as amped up to repeat it."
In many ways, the feelings the Seahawks had leaving Atlanta last season are similar to what the Saints felt leaving Seattle in December. The performance New Orleans put forth in a national spotlight was surprisingly unimpressive. Drew Brees was confused, Jimmy Graham was invisible and the Saints' aggressive defense was exploited by Wilson.
The 34-7 loss to Seattle was significant in forcing the Saints into challenges they faced, having to win in Week 17 just to make the playoffs and having to spend the entire postseason away from the comforts of New Orleans. They passed the first two tests, beating Tampa Bay in the season finale to wrap up the No. 6 seed in the NFC then picking up the first playoff road win in franchise history in a 26-24 win at Philadelphia last week.
Now the Saints get a chance at a bit of redemption. The piercing noise of CenturyLink Field and the style that Seattle plays will no longer be surprises. And there's a bit of history on the side of the Saints. Since 2005, No. 6 seeds are 5-2 against No. 1 seeds in the divisional round.
"I was just hoping we have another opportunity and here we are with that opportunity," Brees said.
The Saints are subtly different — for better and worse — since that December blowout. They are more committed to running the football over the last three games and capped with 185 yards rushing last week against the Eagles. That commitment will be severely tested by Seattle's No. 1 ranked defense that gave up 13 yards rushing to St. Louis the last time it was on the field. They are also better on the offensive line with the decision to replace Charles Brown at left tackle with Terron Armstead.
But New Orleans is littered with injuries, the latest being linebacker Parys Haralson being lost for the season with a torn pectoral last week. Running back Pierre Thomas is also an unknown with a chest injury.
"There's going to be attrition when you look at a 16-game schedule and you hope that you stay healthier than most and you hope that you are able to keep most of your starters intact," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "We've had a handful of injuries defensively, a few on offense and I think the key is developing the younger players, developing your back up players throughout the work week."
Seattle is also different from the first meeting, although there's no track record to know just what adding Percy Harvin to the offense will mean. Certainly the addition of Harvin — who missed all but one game of the season after hip surgery — makes Seattle more dynamic and could provide a needed boost to an offense that slumped the final four weeks of the regular season.
"I'm confident in myself once I get to the game. I'm just going to cut it loose," Harvin said. "I made all the cuts and did all the practice I could do possibly in the game. I felt no limitations. No swelling came. No setbacks. So I'm going to go out there and give it all I have."