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Even against Seahawks, Saints’ Brees must step up

Drew Brees (9) always is Saints key but now they need Reggie Bush (25) produce too. | Chris Graythen~Getty Images

Drew Brees (9) always is a Saints key, but now they need Reggie Bush (25) to produce, too. | Chris Graythen~Getty Images

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Updated: February 9, 2011 12:13AM

SEATTLE — The New Orleans Saints reached the dizziest heights possible last year thanks in large part to quarterback Drew Brees, whose marvelous individual performances not only made the Saints champions but also provided needed inspiration to the entire Gulf Coast community. Brees was the Super Bowl MVP and, eventually, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

Now he’ll have to be even better if the Saints are going to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl. The long and winding road starts this afternoon in Seattle in the wild-card round of the playoffs. A Saints victory, coupled with a Green Bay Packers win on Sunday in Philadelphia, would send the defending champions to Soldier Field for a divisional-round game against the Bears. If the Eagles win, they will head to Chicago, with the New Orleans-Seattle winner traveling to Atlanta to face the top-seeded Falcons.

Running game takes double hit

Brees is more important than ever to the Saints because they are battling a rash of injuries. Earlier this week, word came that leading rushers Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas will be unavailable for the playoff run. That leaves the running game in the uncertain hands of Reggie Bush and Julius Jones. Bush is little more than a perimeter threat as a runner these days, and his long-term future as a running back may hang in the balance in these playoffs. The Saints are downplaying his role because he has wilted under pressure when asked to step up before.

Bush and Jones have extra motivation against Seattle. Jones was cut by the Seahawks just over two months ago, and Bush will be facing his old college coach, Pete Carroll, who bolted from USC ahead of the NCAA investigators. The Trojans later were put on probation for violations surrounding Bush that led him to return his 2005 Heisman Trophy under pressure.

The Saints’ running game is in turmoil, and ditto for the passing game. Wide receiver Marques Colston is expected to play despite coming off arthroscopic knee surgery Dec. 28, and there are a host of issues at tight end, where Jeremy Shockey (groin) and David Thomas (knee) have survived fitness battles and Jimmy Graham has an ankle injury that will keep him out of the game.

‘‘That is the way that we have found some of our stars, our core guys, up to this time,’’ Brees said of the injury concerns, pointing out that Thomas came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent battling to make the team before injuries launched his career.

‘‘You never know when your opportunity is going to come, and you never know what you have until all of a sudden that guy gets an opportunity, so I am excited for some of these guys. You find ways to pick up the slack and spread the ball around and hopefully get some opportunities.’’

Brees made the most of his opportunity last year, throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions in three playoff games, including a 32-for-39 passing night in the Super Bowl, tying Tom Brady’s big-game record for completions. Brees hit 21 of 24 passes in one stretch and finished with 288 yards and two touchdowns.

The encore has been tougher than expected, with Brees pressing at times during the regular season, when he passed for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns but threw 22 interceptions — the second-highest total in the NFL behind the New York Giants’ Eli Manning.

Time to focus on 7-9 Seattle

The Saints are 0-3 all-time on the road in the playoffs, but they’ve never met a team in the postseason like the 7-9 Seahawks. No NFL team has. The question isn’t whether the Seahawks deserve to be in the playoffs but whether they are the worst team ever to make the postseason. The NFL is expected to discuss seeding the playoffs in response to their triumph as NFC West champions.

‘‘Certainly we appreciate and respect any team we’re playing,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said, ‘‘so going on the road into a very tough environment in the postseason is clearly something that has their attention and their focus. And it really becomes more about your work week and your preparation — handling the noise, handling the challenges of playing a road game, regardless of who the opponent is.

‘‘So I think more than anything else, studying the tape and focusing on what we have to do has been the main emphasis, and I think they understand that. I think the players are smart enough to understand that anytime you’re in the postseason, those games are challenges regardless of who and where you’re playing — but specifically when you’re playing a team coming off a big win, which [the Seahawks] had at their stadium, which is one of the hardest places to play in our league.’’

Oddmakers installed the Saints as 101/2- to 11-point favorites, and that number didn’t change with news that quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will start the game. That means they don’t respect his prowess any more than Charlie Whitehurst’s ­— or that they expected Hasselbeck to start all along and built his return into the number.

‘‘I don’t know that any of us pay much attention to the point spreads,’’ Payton said. ‘‘[The players] understand that we have to play our best football, especially when you get into the postseason.’’

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