The Seattle Seahawks, led by powerful running back Marshawn Lynch, used their tried and true formula to beat the New Orleans Saints 23-15 on a rainy, windy Saturday to advance to the NFC conference championship next Sunday.
The top-seeded Seahawks, who were 13-3 in the regular season, justified their ranking with an overpowering first half in taking a 16-0 lead before holding off a surge by the battling Saints.
"We played good, grind it out football," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who felt the wet, slippery conditions made it hard to rely on the passing game.
"This is exactly why you make a commitment to be a balanced offense and be a balanced football team. So when you have these opportunities and situations you can play defense, kick the ball and run the football."
Lynch, who goes by the nickname "Beast Mode", ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns, including a 31-yard romp that padded Seattle's lead to 23-8 with 2:48 left.
New Orleans gave themselves a last desperate chance against the National Football League's top-ranked defense after quarterback Drew Brees hit Marques Colston with a nine-yard touchdown pass to make it 23-15 with 26 seconds to play.
The Saints recovered the onside kick and Brees made two completions before Colston tried to extend the final play with a forward lateral and the infraction resulted in a 10-second run-off that ended the game.
Colston had a chance to step out of bounds, and stop the clock with a couple of ticks left to give Brees one last opportunity to heave the ball to the end zone, but instead he improperly tossed it across the field in hopes of catching Seattle off guard.
"I'm proud of the way our guys competed. But we weren't able to get it done," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "It's always tough when you get this far and you're not able to finish.
"They are a tough defense and have been all season long, and force you to be really patient with what you're doing."
The Seahawks, who have won 16 of their last 17 home games, will next host either the Carolina Panthers or San Francisco 49ers next Sunday for the NFC championship and a berth in the Super Bowl next month in New Jersey. Carolina and San Francisco play on Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Seattle stifled the Saints' passing attack in the first half, holding Brees to 34 yards through the air as he completed five of 12 throws.
Lynch scored on a 15-yard burst up the middle and Steven Hauschka kicked field goals from 38, 49 and 26 yards for a sizeable cushion at the intermission.
New Orleans dominated the action in the second half.
Khiry Robinson dove in from the one-yard line early in the fourth quarter to make it 16-8 and with the Saints' defense holding down the Seahawks' attack, Brees brought New Orleans within range of tying the score.
The Saints marched to the Seattle 25-yard line, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie.
But Seattle pushed them back and Shayne Graham missed a 48-yard field goal try, his second miss of the game.
Seattle secured their lead when quarterback Russell Wilson converted a third-and-three on a twisting, sprawling catch by Doug Baldwin one play before Lynch bounced outside and rambled into the end zone from 31 yards out.
Brees finished with 309 yards passing, hitting 24 of 43 passes against the fierce Seattle secondary. Wilson, relying on the running of Lynch, completed 9 of 18 for 103 yards through the air.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who along with his secondary mates held Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to one reception, said he was looking forward to another bruising game next week with a Super Bowl bid at stake.
"Both teams (Panthers, 49ers) are physical, like to run the ball and have great defenses," said Sherman. "It will be another physical, knockout game."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Gene Cherry)