The San Francisco 49ers have to like the situation they're in: playing at home on Saturday, coming off a two-week stretch in which they were able to get healthy while studying a team that doesn't play nearly as well outdoors as indoors. And they have to like it because their defense doesn't have to blitz to get pressure on Drew Brees in the divisional round matchup -- meaning they can play seven men back to clog the passing lanes of the most efficient and accurate quarterback in NFL history.
"What you have to do against the Saints," safety Donte' Whitner told me after the Niners' last full practice of the week Thursday, "is think the game through. This is not a game where you just react. In certain games, you're better off just reacting. But in this game, the message all week has been think it through, because they're going to show you things on offense that make you think they're going to do one thing when that's not what they're doing. Drew Brees is tremendous at that."
That's the danger playing Brees, and if the Niners can conquer that and not get frustrated by the way his eyes play the field, San Francisco will have a good chance to win at Candlestick. But that's much, much, much easier said than done.
"Drew makes it very, very difficult to get his keys," said Whitner. "He can confuse you with his snap count. Then his eyes -- he manipulates the defense with his eyes better than anyone in football.''
High praise. Whitner's a guy who's faced Tom Brady eight times. But this isn't just about frustrating and hurrying Brees. It's about two other facets of the Saints on offense: defusing Darren Sproles and making sure the Niners play the run as consistently as they played it all season.
Sproles is a singular player in these playoffs. No team has a weapon like him. His quickness and moves in tight quarters make him seem like he's playing the game at a different speed than everyone else. Who do you cover him with? Couple him with one of the most athletic tight ends in the league, Jimmy Graham, and the matchup nightmares could doom San Francisco.
The 49ers have the two fastest inside 'backers playing in tandem in the league right now, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. But consistently they wouldn't be a match for Sproles. They might be able to handle Graham for a portion of the game, but the pressure will be on the secondary to handle both of them, particularly Sproles.
When the story of this game is written, I have a feeling it will be a good one for the Niners if they hold Sproles to, say, eight touches from scrimmage for 40 yards and no touchdowns. But that's going to be tough to do. Last week, he touched it 14 times from scrimmage in the rout of the Lions, for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Anytime Sproles has gotten in even a little bit of open space this season for the Saints, he's made the defense pay. Last week against the Lions, he ran through defenders for a 17-yard touchdown as if they were standing still.
But where the Niners differ from other teams is they can get pressure with four up front, particularly with the Missouri Smiths -- veteran defensive end Justin and situational rusher Aldon, the rookie, both from Missouri. "If you don't have to bring the blitzes against this team, you know you match up well against them," said Whitner.
If San Francisco puts a cap on Sproles and Graham, and holds them, perhaps, to a combined one touchdown and 100 yards, it'll be a great day for the Niners. But a lot of teams have had similar plans this season -- and the Saints are 14-3.
Good show this week with Houston GM Rick Smith, on building the Texans, and weekly guest Bob McGinn, on how the Packers overcame a weak early start by Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay to gain trust in him. The podcast is on iTunes and on SI.com.
A few highlights ...
The reliance on third-string quarterback T.J. Yates: "We don't ask the quarterback to throw it 40 or 50 times a game; we ask him to throw it 20 to 25 times a game because of our run game and because of the way we play defense. And so if we were ever going to be built to withstand a loss at the quarterback position, we felt like we were this year."
Chances against Baltimore: "The thing that impresses me most about our players, and I've said this often, is they work. And the reason why we've had the success that we've had is because they stay focused and they come to work every week. We had an outstanding week of practice last week and this group is confident going into the game on [Sunday against Baltimore] because they put the work in. If we can stay focused again and ... repeat our week of preparation, I feel real good about our chances [against the Ravens]."
Tim Tebow: "Quarterbacks are measured first and foremost by wins, and this guy [Tebow] is a winner ... He continues to make plays when his team needs him to make plays. It's unconventional. If you're evaluating from a conventional standpoint or perspective, then you look at it and say, 'There's no way this guy can be successful in our league and do the things that quarterbacks have to do in our league consistently,' but all he's doing so far is going out and winning."
Denver WR Matthew Willis (No. 12). With Eric Decker out this week with a sprained knee ligament suffered against Pittsburgh in a wild-card game, Willis, with 18 catches in 17 games this year, takes over as the slot receiver for Denver. Decker's chemistry with Tebow was good, so it'll be interesting to see if Willis can be the same kind of reliable target. He'll be vital, because the Pats are sure to try to blanket last week's hero, Demaryius Thomas.
1. The weather at Candlestick. Bad time for the Niners to be having the nicest January in memory. San Francisco would be better served with a slick field Saturday, to slow Sproles and Graham. But the weather's been almost summery, with consistent bright sunshine all week ... and it could be a 67 by gametime. Saints weather.
2. Tebowmania. Timmy Comes To Foxborough. Just a feeling here that the Patriots, not beat up like the Steelers were last week, and not playing a secondary with no safeties in sight, will handle Tebow better than Pittsburgh did.
3. Where do the Dolphins go from here? Miami owner Steve Ross took out all the stops in courting Jeff Fisher. With the former Titans coach now headed to St. Louis, the Dolphins coaching search will have to hit the reset button. Expect Miami to reconsider a few of those previously interviewed and a few new names, such as Bengals defensive coordiantor Mike Zimmer.
4. Coaching hot spots. Will the Bucs choose Mike Sherman or Marty Schottenheimer? Will Andy Reid dump Juan Castillo for Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator? Will the Falcons get lucky and have Spags fall into their lap? That and more to come -- including whether Brian Schottenheimer can land on his feet coaching Matt Ryan.
5. The emotional Pack. Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin is expected to miss Sunday's divisional game against the Giants after the drowning death of his son Michael. Green Bay's a tight community, and the Packers are a tight team. We'll see how much, if at all, this affects them.
6. The opportunistic Giants. Four years ago New York rushed and pressured Brett Favre and benefited from a game-turning interception in overtime. Aaron Rodgers is a different player, less of a riverboat gambler, but he can still feel the heat from a defense that, like San Francisco's, doesn't have to blitz much to get pressure on the quarterback. An interesting matchup for both sides.
7. Foster versus Rice. The Ravens-Texans game, featuring running backs Arian Foster and Ray Rice, could be played in two hours and 42 minutes. Playoff football, on the ground. What a novel concept.
8. Joe Flacco's beefs. The Baltimore quarterback isn't happy that he's viewed as a sidebar to Rice in the Ravens offense. When he completes 65 percent of his throws, he'll have a better argument to make.
9. Los Angeles football. I think St. Louis owner Stan Kroenke has to come out and say either the team isn't moving to L.A., or might, in the wake of Rams beat man Jim Thomas saying Fisher's decision on choosing the Rams or Dolphins is being affected by not being sure where the Rams will be in a couple of years. The story hasn't been knocked down, which tells a Rams fan there might be something to it. The Rams need to say something, and soon.
10. The Patriots need to win a playoff game. It's been four years since the team of this era has won one. Pardon the locals if they're a bit nervous about the seemingly magical powers of one Timothy Tebow.