The Saints first third and long conversion was the most concrete. That is, if we could replay everything as it was, same knowledge, same health, same fatigue, same game plan, same day, same weather, same everything, adding in only the innate unpredictability of the world; the blitz the Seahawks ran, from the formation the Seahawks ran that blitz, against the Saints deep drop out of shotgun, with Marques Colston matched against Roy Lewis, would most likely result in a first down. Brees had one read and it was a winner, and Seattle wasn't ready to stop it. The Seahawks pass defense was not likely to stop the Saints from converting the third and long and didn't.
The second third and long was the most volatile. Aaron Curry was so very close to providing front side pressure. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor did a great job of rushing from the edges. Thomas was within feet of sacking Brees or at least dramatically changing the outcome of the play. Walter Thurmond was in the right coverage scheme but fell. Seattle had so many near achievements, any tiny variation in the progression of the play could have led to a different outcome.
The final third and long hinged on a one-handed catch by Lance Moore. That was even after so many things had gone wrong for the Seahawks. Seattle had committed too many pass rushers and into the teeth of seven blockers. Seattle had not generated pressure and Brees stepped up and threw a high arcing spiral. Thurmond had worked Moore towards the right sideline but lost a step in the process and was trailing, too far from the target to screen Moore or tip or intercept the pass. After all that, anything but a great catch results in an incomplete pass.
Each third and long was critical to the outcome of the game. Observation tells us that two of the three were very close to ending in Seattle's favor. Statistical analysis tells us that third down performance is wildly variable. How does Seattle win the high-leverage downs it lost in week 11?
Improved performance by Aaron Curry at defensive tackle. Seattle started playing Curry at tackle this season, and he's only seen a handful of snaps at the position each game. It seems like Curry has been more effective each game at collapsing the pocket, but that doesn't mean he's destined to break out. Then again, what is a break out if not an incremental improvement that catalyzes huge gains?
Anticipating Brees's deep drops out of shotgun. The first time Seattle forced the Saints into third and long, the Seahawks attacked with a blitz that was poorly equipped to attack Brees's deep drop out of shotgun. The second time, Seattle attacked around the edge and pressured Brees into stepping up into the pocket. The first third down conversion was a kind of gimme, but I do not think Seattle will be so fooled again. The Saints will either adjust or in all likelihood be less successful.
Better personnel at corner and nickelback. It's been yet another rough season for Marcus Trufant, but I trust Tru is still better than Walter Thurmond. In turn, I know Walter Thurmond is better than Roy Lewis. The best game plan ever conceived is nothing without talent and execution, and if the Seahawks can keep Trufant in the game, it means better execution at left cornerback and better talent at nickelback.
Anticipating Marques Colston out of the slot. Matching Lewis against Colston is a bad idea. Leaving Colston and Lewis matched one-on-one is downright suicidal. Given his placement, it's possible that Kam Chancellor was supposed to break from deep center and double Colston. If that's the case, Kam better step his game up.
Play from ahead (or at least stay close.) It's reductive to the point of stupidity, but teams that fall well behind early rarely win. In the NFL, that fact is compounded by a constantly shifting game state that gives winning teams a chance to capitalize on losing teams' desperation. After all, once a team is down three scores in the fourth quarter, that team doesn't care if it loses by 3 or 30, and game state dictates it must risk big to have any chance at recovery. By playing from ahead, Seattle doesn't just accomplish the most basic goal in football, it gives itself a chance to be the better team.