San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1) at New Orleans Saints (5-5)
1. San Francisco, we have a quarterback controversy
Jim Harbaugh can spin it any way he wants, but the fact is the 49ers now have a sticky situation that could affect their run to the playoffs in these last six weeks of the regular season. Colin Kaepernick will start at quarterback for the second game in a row -- and this time it has nothing to do with the health of Alex Smith.
Kaepernick stepped in for the concussed Smith last Monday night and performed splendidly in his first NFL start, completing 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns (with no turnovers). Afterward, Harbaugh praised Kaepernick profusely, saying the second-year quarterback played at an "A-plus" level. Harbaugh also rejected the notion that a quarterback -- Smith -- shouldn't necessarily lose his job because of an injury.
On Wednesday, Harbaugh privately told Smith, who apparently had not been medically cleared to return at that point, that Kaepernick would start against the Saints. "Alex, I'm sorry," Harbaugh said, according to SI.com's Jim Trotter.
An apology isn't going to douse this internal fire. Smith can put on his best face and place his support behind Kaepernick, but internally he must be chafing at this turn of events. Smith leads the league in completion percentage (70.0), has thrown 13 touchdown passes with only five interceptions, and before suffering a concussion against St. Louis in Week 10 had completed 25 of his last 27 passes. With Smith as the starter, the 49ers are 20-6-1 (including playoffs) over the last two seasons.
Kaepernick, who had played sparingly since being drafted in the second round last year, did look like a seasoned vet against Chicago. And, unlike Smith, Kaepernick is a dual threat as a passer and a runner.
In talking to local reporters on Wednesday, Harbaugh acknowledged that each week he could have a decision to make between who starts at quarterback, perhaps even switching them during games.
"I think it's a unique situation," Harbaugh said. "We have two really good guys, two really good players, two guys we really believe in. So could you? Yes. You could."
Whether that plan works successfully will be up to Harbaugh, Smith and Kaepernick.
2. Playoff speculation may be premature
That the Saints have reached the break-even mark is a remarkable achievement, given that they buried themselves in a deep hole early in the season. They are only the sixth team to start 0-4 and then pull to .500 or better after 10 games, according to the NFL. The turnaround has the Who Dat Nation feeling downright giddy. So giddy that some fans on team message boards are predicting that New Orleans could run the table in the final six weeks of the regular season.
We hate to throw cold water on those thoughts, but the Saints still face a steep climb. Right now, they are the ninth-best team in the NFC, meaning that they would have to leap over three 6-4 teams -- Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Seattle -- to claim the sixth and final playoff spot in the conference.
And they're about to begin a stretch in which they play three NFC first-place teams in succession. After hosting the 49ers on Sunday, they must travel to Atlanta -- beating the Falcons in a rematch, on the road, will be challenging -- and the Giants. Those three games will shed much more light on whether we can stamp "playoff caliber" on this New Orleans team.
Quarterback Drew Brees and his merry band of receivers always make the Saints dangerous. And now the running game, a committee comprised of Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, when he returns from a broken hand, is providing the offense with some much-needed balance.
One thing that has to change -- for the better -- is the defense. It has allowed 400 or more yards in each of the Saints' 10 games this season. That certainly isn't the signature of a playoff team.
In the end, an overtime loss at home in Week 3 to Kansas City -- the Chiefs' only win so far -- could be the thorn that pricks the Saints' playoff hopes.
3. Michael Crabtree is making his mark
The 49ers made several offseason moves in an effort to fortify their wide receiver corps. They convinced Randy Moss to come out of retirement, signed former Giant Mario Manningham in free agency, and selected A.J. Jenkins of Illinois in the first round of the draft.
Yet, they discovered that their No. 1 go-to guy was on the roster all along.
Fourth-year wideout Michael Crabtree, who led the team in receiving last season (72 catches for 874 yards and four touchdowns), has emerged as the consistent playmaker the 49ers envisioned when they took him with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft. Through 10 games, Crabtree has 47 receptions for 541 yards (an 11.5-yard average) and five TDs.
Crabtree, who has been targeted 66 times, is tied with Chicago's Brandon Marshall and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne for the most third-down receptions (22). Crabtree has 244 receiving yards and four touchdowns on third down. During a game-clinching scoring drive against Detroit this season, Crabtree converted three consecutive third-down receptions into first downs. Of his 541 total yards, 285 have come after the catch.
Crabtree was widely considered the best receiver in the nation during his two years at Texas Tech -- he is the only player to win back-to-back Biletnikoff Awards for best college receiver -- but his NFL career stalled at the start. A rookie holdout, he didn't join the team until October. Then, foot and neck injuries precluded him from participating in three straight training camps.
This year, Crabtree was injury free during the offseason and training camp for the first time. That allowed him to not only hone his individual skills but also establish a stronger rapport with Smith. Also, don't discount the impact Moss has made on Crabtree -- and all of the receivers -- as a mentor and a leader.
A second-round draft pick of the Falcons in 2008, Lofton became a free agent after last season and signed a five-year contract with the NFC South rival Saints. He has settled in as the team's middle linebacker, starting every game and leading New Orleans in tackles. Here are excerpts of his chat with SI.com.
What caught your attention about the 49ers when you watched their game against Chicago on Monday night?
The number one thing was just how physical they are on the offensive side of the ball. Also, they have very athletic tight ends that are really good at making plays for them. Overall, they're just a complete team.
San Francisco has the No. 1 rushing offense in the league. The Saints rank last in defending the run. How can you guys stop their running game?
We just have to do what we do. Bring an attitude to the game, play sound football, and be efficient. If everybody stays in their gaps and does their jobs, we'll be just fine.
What has been the primary problem with the defense?
New system, new guys. But if you look at the past three or four games, we're starting to jell and come together as a unit and have been playing really good football. The arrow is pointing up on us right now.
Who or what held the Saints together during their 0-4 start?
It was everyone. I wouldn't say it was just one person. Everyone knew the kind of team we could be, but we just had to do more things right and take care of the little things. When we were 0-4, everybody pointed at themselves (and said) How can I get better? What can I do better to help this team? We've dug ourselves out of a hole, but we're far from out of it.
What has been the main reason for the turnaround?
Our offense has been playing great all year. On defense, we've really picked up our level of play. We may give up a few yards, but we've been playing great and creating turnovers.
Is there a belief in the locker room that this team can make the playoffs?
We feel right now like we control our own destiny. We're taking it one game at a time. If we take that approach and keep taking care of business like we've been, at the end of the year we'll be pretty happy and, hopefully, in the playoffs. Right now, we're just focused on this game. Everybody knows what's out there, but it's out there only if you win.
Why did you decide to sign with the Saints in the offseason?
I felt super comfortable in my visit (to New Orleans). It felt like family. I want to win a Super Bowl and I felt like this was a great team and there were enough great players that we had a chance of doing that. And I still believe that. That was the turning point for me. I wanted to go to a team that celebrated me, not tolerated me.
What have you learned about Drew Brees that you didn't know before becoming a Saint?
How much he prepares himself. I've heard people say, first one in, last to leave. This guy is the definition of that. I've been around a lot of quarterbacks. He's different. He really cares about other guys. He may be a superstar, but he treats everyone the same and is just a normal guy to us.
What's one thing about New Orleans that you have uncovered?
Everything is 24 hours pretty much. I'm used to things in Atlanta closing down at 2 or 3. In New Orleans, if there's a good crowd and everybody's having a good time, no telling when the place shuts down.
What happens when the unstoppable force meets the moveable object? We'll find out when the 49ers' league-best rushing offense squares off against the Saints' league-worst rushing defense. San Francisco is averaging 165.5 yards on the ground while New Orleans is yielding 157.8 yards per game. Here is a game-by-game juxtaposition of the two.
The Saints went 13-3 during the regular season last year and looked like a potential Super Bowl team until the 49ers spoiled things with a 36-32 divisional-round playoff victory in San Francisco. New Orleans could expel the last remaining bitter taste from that loss with a victory at home Sunday.
The Saints have regrouped from their disappointing start and look like they have put the fallout of the bounty scandal behind them. There's no disputing that they have played better in the last five weeks. Unfortunately, their defense still is troubling.
The 49ers are clicking on offense -- no matter who stands under center -- and their defense has a formidable front seven led by second-year end Aldon Smith, who leads the league in sacks (15), and arguably the best corps of linebackers in the NFL. All of that will be a tall task for Brees and Co. to overcome.
49ers 26, Saints 21Last week: Ravens 26, Steelers 19Season record: 6-5