METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton has often trotted out his belief that his seventh Saints team is young, one full of inexperienced players.
Certainly he has a point – the average age of the 53-man roster is 24 and the average experience is just two seasons in the league.
But while there are 11 rookies, including seven undrafted players, and nine players with 1-2 years of experience on the roster, it’s hard to call them inexperienced at this point.
Not after what this team has been through in the past six weeks.
They were young on Dec. 2, the last time New Orleans (12-5) played at Seattle and lost 34-7.
Since that blowout, they’ve faced the No. 2-seeded Panthers twice (winning once), played a must-win season finale (and won 42-17) and won the franchise’s first-ever playoff game in an NFC opponent’s stadium (26-24 at Philadelphia).
“I think each week throughout the course of the season we get to see a lot of young players in roles because of injuries sometimes,” Payton said. “Sometimes they have been in roles from the start of the season. It is a process and they’ve handled that transition pretty well.”
Seattle (13-3) will host at 3:35 p.m. Saturday what looks like a different Saints team than the last time they played.
The team that played at Carolina and lost on a last-second touchdown pass and earned a last-second win against the Eagles is one that has grown up and given the long-time veterans a reason to feel confident.
Seventeen players earned their first-ever postseason experience in the Philadelphia game. That leaves only four players on the roster without any postseason plays – cornerback Terrence Frederick, quarterback Ryan Griffin, receiver Nick Toon and defensive end Tyrunn Walker.
“I can see that we’ve been tested a little bit more than we had earlier in the year,” veteran right tackle Zach Strief said. “I think there was a period there where you just kind of say, ‘Do we know exactly what we have or who we are?’ ”
Not anymore, Strief said.
“And games like last week – even the Carolina game – I think those games go a long way in maturing your team,” Strief said.
Added rookie running back Khiry Robinson, who has been leaned on more as the season has progressed, “Each rookie has made a big impact on this squad. It comes from following up on those vets and learning and listening at the same time. It’s a good thing and that’s what we were brought here for, to step up when our number is called.”
Payton tried many different ways to prepare the team for the noise of CenturyLink Field last time, including using sound dampening ear pieces and large placards. It still didn’t work.
It’s safe to say those who had never played at Seattle before won’t be surprised by the crowd and speed of the game this time.
“We’ve experienced it a handful of times now and you just try to simulate it as best as you can and turn these speakers up real loud and go about trying to communicate and making sure you are still getting off on the ball and all of those things,” Payton said.
Still, Payton isn’t calling his team a veteran one and likely won’t for awhile.
“I will probably always consider them young for another two or three years,” Payton said.