Members of the New Orleans Saints’ defense didn’t have to search too far into their memory banks to remember what Matt Hasselbeck did to them in the first round of the NFC playoffs in January.
Hasselbeck threw four touchdown passes in engineering a stunning upset as the two-touchdown underdog Seattle Seahawks eliminated the Saints 41-36, squashing their hopes of a run to a second straight Super Bowl title.
The uniform and area code Hasselbeck plays in are different now, but the Tennessee Titans (7-5) are hoping the wily 13-year veteran can somehow repeat some of his stellar performances against the Saints (9-3) when they meet again at noon Sunday in LP Field.
“There’s a familiarity that would exist for Matt in regards to playing against our defense,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But it’s more about what and who the Titans are as opposed to jumping back a year or two. You would look at games like that, but it all gets back to the fit of your own team.
“Their approach would be just like ours. They would study very closely the more recent games and games in which we didn’t play as well.”
With that said, the game is a big one for both teams as they begin the final quarter of the season. It might be more important for the Titans.
Tennessee is two games behind the Houston Texans in the race for the AFC South title and a loss would not only virtually end its chances of a division title, but it would put a crimp in its wild-card hopes as well.
On the other hand, the Saints, who hold a two-game cushion over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, can wrap up the division crown with a win over the Titans and a Falcons loss.
If the Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers, the Saints can still clinch a playoff berth with a win and a loss by either the Chicago Bears or Detroit Lions.
The key word for the Saints, who have won four games in a row since a stunning loss to the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 30, is win.
But the 36-year-old Hasselbeck and running back Chris Johnson, a 2,000-yard rusher two seasons ago, stand in their way.
While the Saints have never played against Johnson, they have come across Hasselbeck five times — including that ill-fated playoff game on Jan. 8. They defeated him and the Seahawks 34-19 in the middle of a six-game winning streak last season.
All told, the Saints have won three of the five matchups, but Hasselbeck has been especially effective in the past three meetings. He’s hit on 80 of 122 passes (65.6 percent) for 1,000 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions and a 103.2 passer rating.
Hasselbeck is having another productive season, settling in quickly with the Titans after signing with them in late July when the NFL lockout ended.
While he’s now playing for a team that prefers to run first and throw later, Hasselbeck has put up 2,657 yards with 15 TDs and 10 interceptions.
“He’s having a great season,” Payton said. “There’s a level of confidence that he brings to the huddle. And he’s someone who’s very accurate.
“One of the things that’s a great trait for a quarterback is he gets rid of the ball on time. That, combined with a really good running attack they have, they present obviously a lot of challenges.”
Even though the Titans rank 18th in the league in passing with just 222.5 yards per game, it’s still a concern for the Saints because they rank 30th against the pass in allowing 264.2 yards a game.
Hasselbeck tried to downplay his successful outings against the Saints, saying it’s just a matter of being competitive against a good team.
“I don’t know if that’s actually true,” he said of having that much success against the Saints, “but when you get to go up against a great offense or a great defense you kind of get geared up for those games. The Saints have had really good teams in recent history.
“Obviously, everybody talks about their offense. But quarterbacks know how tough it is to face that defense, so you probably put a little bit more extra effort into that.”
Hasselbeck said his old team benefited from playing the Saints twice last season, especially when it came to preparing for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams because he changes things up so much.
“We had the luxury last season of playing the Saints in the regular season,” Hasselbeck said. “That’s sometimes a little bit easier to prepare for when you know what works for you and what doesn’t work for you.”
Hasselbeck has gotten a lot more help recently with Johnson’s revitalization.
After holding out for a new contract in training camp, Johnson had just 98 yards in the first three games and went on to record only one 100-yard game in the first eight outings while totaling 366 yards.
In the past four weeks, however, the fourth-year pro has exploded for 486 yards with outings of 130, 190 and 153 yards — averaging 8.3 and 6.7 yards, respectively, in the past two.
“What’s most important for us is getting that pursuit, getting our hats to the ball, and being gap sound in regard to where we need to be,” said Payton. “He is a player that if you’re a half a step late to your assigned area or if you’re not really pursuing the way you need to, he’s very dangerous.”