NFC Playoffs Q&A: Experience counts

5. Will this be a defining game for Brees? Brees relieved a lot of pressure by getting his first playoff road win, but he still needs to conquer the road demon in Seattle. Even in the Philadelphia victory, Brees made the mistakes that have cost him in previous losses. He had two first-half interceptions and the Saints had two false starts. The Saints' offense had 14 false starts and nine delay-of-game penalties during the regular season.

Those kinds of mistakes could doom the Saints in Seattle. There is no question the crowd noise in Seattle negatively affects Brees and the Saints' offense. The Saints lost a playoff game in Seattle to a 7-9 start-up Seahawks team after the 2010 season.

Things were worse in the Monday night loss in early December, when Brees threw for only 147 yards. The Seahawks have the best secondary in football. In the December game, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was limited to three catches and 42 yards.

Plus, the secondary has improved in coverage since Byron Maxwell took over for the suspended Brandon Browner at cornerback. Although Browner is the best at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, Maxwell has more speed and coverage ability. If the Seahawks get a first-half interception and convert it into a touchdown drive, the Saints could be in trouble.

6. How aggressive will Ryan be? The Saints' D was effective Saturday by being conservative. New Orleans rushed a fifth defender only once. The safe defense limited the Eagles' offense to only 256 yards on 57 plays. A torn pectoral to outside linebacker Parys Haralson might force the Saints to remain basic. The Saints have lost three linebackers to season-ending injuries -- Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Victor Butler. The Saints were forced into making a trade with San Francisco for Haralson. The Saints are running out of linebackers.

Early in the season, Ryan was able to successfully work a three-safety defense featuring Kenny Vaccaro, but he broke an ankle in the Week 16 game against Carolina. Two of the team's top three cornerbacks -- Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson -- are out for the season. Ryan has done an incredible job converting the Saints to a 3-4 defense after being fired in Dallas. At some point, the Saints have to reach a breaking point because of injuries.

7. Can the next two games be defining for Newton? Yes. Newton had a great season that slipped under the spotlight. Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula switched around the offense and allowed Newton to grow. Newton ran the ball well, but he wasn't restricted into running just the read-option. Instead of being a near-4,000-yard passer, Newton ran a more balanced attack. His leadership grew and he started to win the games in the fourth quarter that he lost during his first two seasons.

Newton is a much better closer now. But the playoffs can define a quarterback. Ask Andy Dalton. The Panthers went 12-4 behind Newton's play, but this is his first experience in the playoffs. It won't be easy. The 49ers' defense will give him a hard time. If he wins, he might have to travel to Seattle and see if he can win in a tough, noisy environment. If the Seahawks lose and the Panthers win, Newton would have to face the division rival Saints in Charlotte.

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