Playoff preview: Saints-49ers
The Saints ranked second in the league in scoring, averaging 34.2 points a game; the 49ers ranked second in fewest points allowed, surrendering an average of 14.3 a game.
The Saints had just 19 giveaways, tying for fourth-fewest; the 49ers tied for first in takeaways, with 38.
The Saints ranked sixth in rushing, averaging 132.9 yards a game; the 49ers were No. 1 against the run, surrendering just 77.2 yards a game. They also did not allow a rushing touchdown in their first 13 games.
Stated another way: Something has to give.
The Saints, winners of nine in a row, have scored at least 42 points in each of their last four games, including a 45-28 win over the Lions last weekend. Drew Brees has been particularly lethal since mid-December, throwing for 17 scores with only three interceptions in his last four games. If San Francisco focuses too heavily on him, however, it could create running lanes for the Saints' backs, who gained 167 yards and had three scores against the Lions.
San Francisco, led by end Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, has been excellent against the run, and if that carries into Saturday's game, the Niners will need to get to Brees when he's in obvious passing situations. The Saints allowed just 24 sacks, tying for second-fewest in the league. That protection allowed Brees to complete 71.2 percent of his passes for a league-record 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns.
The 49ers were 16th against the pass, allowing 230.9 yards a game, but they tied for second with 23 interceptions. Brees threw 14 picks during the season and saw the Lions drop at least two easy interceptions last week. So there could be opportunities for takeaways.
The Saints and 49ers opened the preseason against each other, and New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sent waves of defenders after San Francisco's quarterbacks, recording six sacks in the first half alone. The 49ers were in the formative stages of learning a new offense -- after no contact with coaches during the offseason lockout -- and they struggled to secure the pocket.
San Francisco has come a long way since that August meeting, although it still allowed 44 sacks during the regular season -- only six teams allowed more. If the 49ers can effectively handle the Saints' pressure, big plays could await. Alex Smith's 96.3 passer rating against the blitz trailed only Aaron Rodgers (131.4) and Tom Brady (110.9), and eight of his 17 touchdown passes (and only one of his five picks) were against the blitz. Overall he completed 90 of 152 passes for 1,097 yards when teams sent extra rushers.
Also noteworthy is that the Saints surrendered a league-high 14 completions of 40 yards or longer and allowed 10 touchdown passes of at least 20 yards, tying for seventh-most. They don't get a lot of sacks -- they're 33 tied for 18th -- but their pressure often forces quarterbacks to release the ball quicker than they want, which in the eyes of the Saints is nearly as good as a sack.
You read that right. The Saints are 0-4 away from the Superdome in the postseason (this does not include their neutral site win in Super Bowl XLIV). They are 0-2 since 2006, when Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in the Big Easy.
Before arguing that the Saints can't win in the elements, consider that they're 12-4 outdoors the past three seasons and 22-13 since 2006. Their 62.3 winning percentage in the elements the last six seasons is only 4.4 points lower than their winning percentage at home (32-16) during the same period.
Furthermore, they've scored at least 30 points 19 times in 35 outdoor games (54.3 percent) since 2006, compared with 25 times in 61 games indoors.
Weather is not expected to be an issue Saturday. Projections are temperatures in the 60s with no precipitation.
Brees has a career mark of 5-3 in the playoffs -- 0-1 with the Chargers, 5-2 with the Saints. What's scary is that he has been as efficient in the postseason as he has in the regular season. In fact, he has thrown for 13 touchdowns with no interceptions in his last five playoff games. Take a look:
The 49ers are making their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season, but should not be taken lightly. They are big, physical, efficient and have arguably the league's best balance among their offense, defense and special teams. Their three losses this season were by a combined 15 points, so no one should be shocked if they walk away winners. But the nod has to go to the Saints, who are more experienced and playing at a higher level offensively. The Saints want to prove they're more than a dome team, so there is no chance they're going to look past this game for a potential rematch against defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay.