(SportsNetwork.com) - Home cooking is what sets the top two teams in the NFC apart.
Seattle and New Orleans are a combined 11-0 on their respective home fields but if the Saints plan on capturing home-field advantage on the way to Super Bowl XLVIII, they are probably going to have to find a way to top the Seahawks in the Emerald City on "Monday Night Football."
And if their able to do that, the Saints will be the first team to solve football's most difficult puzzle since second-year star quarterback Russell Wilson took over the Seahawks in the 2012 season.
Seattle, which can become the first NFL team to clinch a playoff berth with a win tonight, is an imposing 13-0 (5-0 in 2013) in front of the 12th man under Wilson, who has thrown 26 touchdowns and compiled a 117.0 passer rating in the Pacific Northwest. In the Seahawks' last game before their bye week, Wilson posted a career-high 151.4 passer rating in a 41-20 Week 11 rout of the Minnesota Vikings.
Marshawn Lynch rushed for two touchdowns and hauled in another score in that one, while Wilson went 13-of-18 passing for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Lynch finished with 54 rushing yards on 17 carries and added two grabs for nine yards for the Seahawks, who are 10-1 for the first time in franchise history.
"We haven't done anything yet. 10-1 is great but our goal is to win the whole thing," Wilson said of Seattle's stellar start to the season.
The Saints are one game behind the Seahawks for the NFC lead but just one-half game ahead of the surging Carolina for the top spot in the NFC South after the Panthers disposed of Tampa Bay on Sunday.
New Orleans, which can clinch a playoff berth if they beat the Seahawks tonight and then top Carolina next week, is coming off a hard-fought 17-13 victory over Atlanta in Week 12.
Drew Brees completed 23-of-33 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns in that one. The MVP candidate also eclipsed Warren Moon (49,325) for fifth place on the NFL's all-time passing list in the process. Brees finished the game with 49,564 career yards.
Star tight end Jimmy Graham grabbed five passes for 100 yards and a touchdown for the Saints, who have won three straight.
"I thought that it was a real good, hard-fought win," NOLO head coach Sean Payton said. "I thought both teams played hard. We knew it was going to be a challenge. It is every time we play them."
The Saints lead their all-time series with Seattle by a slim 6-5 margin. Brees threw for 382 yards and four TDs the last time these two teams met in the regular season, a 34-19 New Orleans win on Nov. 21, 2010 at the Superdome.
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While playing the Seahawks on the road is never a desirous situation, New Orleans is arriving at an opportune time. Brees, who is tops in the NFC with 3,647 passing yards and 28 touchdowns, and third with a 107.3 passer rating (with Wilson a tad behind at 105.1), will be facing a secondary that is missing two significant pieces.
Seattle returned from the bye and got hit with the news that cornerback Walter Thurmond was suspended by the NFL for the next four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. The guy he replaced in the starting lineup, the injured Brandon Browner, is also facing a possible year-long suspension for violating the same policy.
"We're still trying to work through it," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I've always found myself looking for guys that maybe other people don't see something special in and we take a chance on a guy here or there that needs some extra consideration and care. Sometimes guys, they have issues and things pop up."
Whatever the excuse, Seattle will be missing two impact performers from what is generally regarded as the best secondary in all of football, and one which has amassed an NFL-high 16 interceptions.
All-Pro corner Richard Sherman, who leads the NFL with 16 interceptions since entering the league in 2011, and top-tier safety Earl Thomas, who is the only defender in football this season with 70-plus tackles (75), four-or-more INTs (4) and two-or-more forced fumbles, are still around so it's not like the Seahawks are walking the plank against Brees but the lack of depth could hurt, especially when trying to cover match-up nightmares like Graham and Darren Sproles.
The lengthy Graham has 65 receptions for 946 yards and 11 TDs on the season and six 100-yard games, the most ever for a tight end, while Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 209 catches, 1,840 receiving yards and 16 receiving TDs since 2011.
"They are very good at playing bump and run outside," Payton said when discussing the Seattle secondary. "They have a lot of talented players, not only in the back end. They have a young linebacker core that runs extremely well and a front that is very physical and very active. Couple that with a crowd noise and an environment that is uniquely different, you have a formula that is successful."
Brees, though, generally isn't nearly as effective on the road. Only nine of his 28 TD passes have come in the team's five games away from the Bayou and his three worst passing yardage efforts have also come while away from Bourbon Street.
Payton was a bit testy while trying to downplay any troubles as the visitor.
"I think it's a typical stereotype with a dome team," the New Orleans coach said. "I don't know what else to tell someone than to do some research and bring back some numbers and I'll answer a question."
The problem for Payton, however, is there is plenty of research and tons of numbers magnifying his team's troubles away from the Superdome.
For instance New Orleans has never won a road playoff game in franchise history (0-5) and is 0-for-3 in such instances under Payton, games in which Brees recorded the three worst passer ratings of his postseason career.
One of those road playoff losses came the last time the Saints visited CenturyLink Field, a 41-36 setback to a 7-9 Seahawks club in 2010, a game made famous by Lynch's 67-yard aptly titled "Beast Quake" TD run.
Lynch, who has rushed for 925 yards and nine TDs so far this season, figures to be a load for New Orleans again. He's currently on the verge of his fifth 1,000-yard season and is facing a Saints D which allows 4.8 yards per rush, 28th in the NFL.
Wilson, who is undersized like Brees, was a big fan of the Saints' signal caller while coming up and mimics a lot of his traits, albeit with far more mobility.
"I know everyone compares our heights and everything, but the thing that I admire about him is his leadership, his attention to detail," Wilson said. "He is very clutch."
Wilson has also been very clutch and his uncanny ability to extend plays and make something positive when things break down will be tested by an aggressive NOLA pass rush led by Cameron Jordan, the son of ex-Vikings Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan. Cameron has 9 1/2 sacks to pace a unit which has 37 overall.
"I think he is a guy that knows how to win," Payton said when asked about Wilson. "I think he is a very good leader. You can see that on tape. Russell is a very competitive, driven player who has number one, a very gifted skill set."
Something has to give here.
Brees has won his past nine "Monday Night Football" starts, completing 224- of-312 (71.8 percent) for 2,880 yards (320 per game) with 28 TDs versus just five INTs in those contests. Wilson, meanwhile, is 13-0 at home and 2-0 on MNF.
Until the Seahawks actually lose at home, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
"Every game that we play is a championship game," Carroll said. "You never know which one is going to be the one that you look back on and say, 'Boy, if we'd have got that one, we would've had this or that.' So we play every one of them like it's the biggest game in the world."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 27, Saints 26