Seahawks move on to NFC conference title game

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Rain fell. Wind blew.

And the Saints came marching in, hoping for a little revenge and a spot in the NFC title game.

But when it ended, it was the Seahawks instead marching on to within a game of the Super Bowl, thanks to a 23-15 victory in front of a CenturyLink Field record crowd of 68,388.

The game was more competitive throughout than a 34-7 Seattle win here on Dec. 2, and the Saints had the ball three times in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie.

Seattle will play the winner of Sunday’s San Francisco-Carolina game for the NFC title a week from Sunday at CenturyLink Field for a spot in Super Bowl XLVIII.

It will be the second time Seattle has hosted the NFC title game, beating Carolina at CenturyLink Field in 2006 to advance to Super Bowl XL, where the Seahawks lost to the Steelers 21-10. Seattle also played in the AFC title game in Los Angeles against the Raiders following the 1983 season, losing 30-14.

Seattle used a few New Orleans special-teams gaffes and a turnover to take a 16-0 lead after an often chippy first half, foreshadowed by a couple bouts of shouting and finger-pointing between Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Seahawks defenders before the game.

Seattle gained just one first down in the third quarter as the Saints tried to stay alive. But a 31-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch with 2:40 left, his second of the day, essentially clinched it. Lynch finished with 140 yards, a Seattle playoff record.

Lynch’s run came after New Orleans kicker Shayne Graham was wide left from 48 yards with, one of a bevy of special teams mistakes for the Saints.

The Saints had moved into position after a play that sent waves of anxiety through Seattle when a pass from Drew Brees went through the hands of Earl Thomas and to Saints receiver Robert Meachem for a 52-yard gain.

But after the Graham miss, the Seahawks put together their only scoring drive of the second half capped by Lynch’s run. New Orleans scored on a 9-yard TD pass from Brees to Marques Colston with 26 seconds left and then recovered an onside kick when the ball bounced through the hands of Golden Tate.

But the Seahawks held on and the party began.

Tough-luck receiver Percy Harvin played for just the second time this season. But he was evaluated for concussions twice in the first half before being declared out and missing the final two quarters. His availability for next week is uncertain.

Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka had three field goals in the first half — of 38, 49 and 26 yards — as the Seahawks took a 16-0 lead into the locker room.

Hauschka’s first field goal came after a 16-yard New Orleans punt into the wind and was set up by a personal-foul penalty on New Orleans safety Rafeal Bush for a blow to the head of Harvin as he attempted to corral a Wilson pass on third down.

Harvin was examined for a concussion and taken briefly to the locker room, but returned to the field.

New Orleans, which punted just once in the first half, then moved into position for a field goal. But Graham missed from 45 yards away with 5:03 left in the first quarter.

Another Hauschka field goal made it 6-0 at the end of a first quarter that was pretty even statistically.

The Saints, who were second in the NFL in passing during the regular season at 307 yards per game, tried to cross up the Seahawks by emphasizing their ground game early.

It worked to an extent as the Saints had 42 rushing yards in the first quarter and 79 at halftime. But it came at the expense of a passing attack that had just 34 yards in the first half, the lowest for Brees since 2006.

The game began to turn Seattle’s way for good on the first play of the second quarter when New Orleans running back Mark Ingram fumbled after a hard hit by Michael Bennett, with Bennett recovering at the Saints’ 24-yard line.

Harvin took a reverse for nine yards and Lynch then busted up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown that made it 13-0 with 14:17 left in the first half.

Seattle had a 163-113 edge in yards in the first half.

The Saints had the wind at their back to start the second half, and held Seattle to just one first down on its first two drives.

But New Orleans, despite moving into Seattle territory on two straight drives, couldn’t score, including missing on a fourth-down pass from the Seahawks 44 with 4:13 left in the third quarter.

The Saints tried to make it a game, scoring on a 1-yard run by Khiry Robinson and getting a two-point run by Ingram with 13:11 left to cut the lead to 16-8.

After stopping Seattle, New Orleans got the ball at its own 6 after a pinpoint Jon Ryan punt with 10:32 to play. But Graham’s miss and Lynch’s run all but assured Seattle’s 16th home win in 17 games.

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