Seahawks stun the Saints in playoff upset

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The Seattle Seahawks stunned the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints 41-36 Saturday in a thrilling opener to 'Wildcard Weekend'.

The Saints had a 17-7 second-quarter lead but gave up three touchdown passes and a magnificent 67-yard, fourth-quarter rushing touchdown by Marshawn Lynch that secured the victory for the Seahawks, who won the NFC West with a 7-9 record.

Lynch, who rushed for 131 yards on 19 carries, broke at least six tackles, including a fierce stiff-arm on Tracy Porter, as he powered his way through the Saints backfield in a run that symbolized the Seahawks' determination.

The touchdown run came at just the right moment for the Seahawks with New Orleans mounting a comeback.

A fourth quarter touchdown run from ex-Seahawk Julius Jones and then a field goal from Garrett Hartley brought the Saints to within 34-30 before Lynch's heroics.

A Drew Brees TD pass to Devery Henderson with 1:30 left gave the Saints a glimmer of hope but they failed in their two-point attempt and then at recovering an onside kick.

"I know it sounds crazy but we expected to win and so we will take this in our stride and move to the next one," he said.

"There was an electric atmosphere in the stadium and I guess the whole city. Our players and our fans played together today in a way that gave us a chance to beat a championship club. It was a great football game."

The Seahawks, whose chance to play at home in the playoffs was criticized by some given their record, will now travel to either Chicago or Atlanta in the NFC divisional round.

AGONISING END

For the Saints, the defeat was an agonizing epilogue to last year's heroic Super Bowl triumph over Indianapolis.

New Orleans was without injured running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory but while that meant Drew Brees had to throw more, it was their defensive weaknesses that proved decisive.

Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck completed 22 of 35 passes for 272 yards and four touchdowns, a week after he was forced to sit out the final game of the regular season with a hip injury.

A 45-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley and a 38-yarder to Mike Williams were both superbly executed throws but Hasselbeck benefited from a porous New Orleans defense.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 39 of 60 passes for 404 yards and two touchdowns but his efforts alone were not enough.

Last year the Saints were the giant-killer but on Saturday found themselves the slain and coach Sean Payton said it was tough to take.

"It's not nice being on the other end of it," he told reporters. "In the end we just weren't good enough in a number of areas, I think it was obvious to see.

"We didn't do a good enough job in the kicking game overall, our return game really struggled, we gave up too many big plays defensively.

"It is disappointing, it starts with us, with me and the coaches. We had effort but it was not enough to win the game. It's disappointing to get into the post-season and finish with a loss to start."

(Writing by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Steve Ginsburg)