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Saints Face Long-Time Nemesis in Week 12

New Orleans has had success against old NFC West rivals this season, but need a winning streak down the stretch for a playoff push.  Standing in their way is a team that has provided more heartbreak for the Saints franchise than any other foe.
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From 1970 to 2001, the New Orleans Saints competed in the NFC West division. Their divisional opponents through those years were the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, and Atlanta Falcons. The Seattle Seahawks also played in the NFC West during their inaugural season of 1976 before being moved to the AFC West in 1977. The Carolina Panthers were placed in the NFC West when they entered the NFL in 1995 and remained until 2001.

Realignment of NFL divisions in 2002 placed New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the newly created NFC South. Seattle was moved back to the NFC West, where they joined the 49ers, Rams, and Arizona Cardinals. 

In 32 years of NFC West play, the New Orleans Saints won just two division titles, in 1991 and 2000, and qualified for the playoffs three other times. The San Francisco 49ers won 16 West championships over that same span. The Rams (Los Angeles/St. Louis) took the division title 10 times, while Atlanta took three crowns and Panthers one.

In 20 seasons of NFC South competition, the Saints have won 7 divisional titles. The Panthers have won five, with Tampa Bay and Atlanta taking four each. Currently 4-7, the Saints sit just two games out of first in the division. Ironically, their chances for an NFC South title might lie with their performance against former NFC West foes. 

New Orleans has already defeated Atlanta, Seattle, and the Rams this season while losing to Carolina. Down the stretch, they are at San Francisco this week, host the Falcons in Week 15, and host the Panthers to conclude the regular season. If the Saints can sweep those three games, they'll have a 6-1 record against former NFC West teams.  

Obviously, a Week 13 showdown at Tampa Bay will also go a long way in determining their divisional fate, along with remaining matchups at Cleveland and Philadelphia. 

Dec 11, 1988; FILE PHOTO; San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig (33) in action against New Orleans Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson (57). Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 11, 1988; FILE PHOTO; San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig (33) in action against New Orleans Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson (57). Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

A win at 6-4 San Francisco could easily fuel a winning streak that may propel the Saints into the playoffs. However, long-time New Orleans fans will tell you that's easier said than done. The Saints own a 27-49-2 all-time record against the 49ers, including a 12-23-2 mark in San Francisco -- a .351 winning percentage. 

Saints fans above a certain age still probably have nightmares about those San Francisco teams led by Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, John Taylor, Ronnie Lott, etc. Then later by the likes of Steve Young, Rice, Ricky Watters, Brent Jones, Merton Hanks, Ken Norton Jr., Dana Stubblefield, and Bryant Young, among others.

The 49ers dominated the NFL from 1981 through 1998, winning 5 Super Bowls, 13 NFC West titles, and missing the playoffs just twice in an 18-year period. Between 1980 and 1999, the Saints had a lowly 9-30 record against San Francisco, a paltry winning percentage of .231.

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It's realistic to believe that those 49er teams cost the Saints a few more NFC West championships and perhaps even a Super Bowl berth or two. 

New Orleans, led by the famed ''Dome Patrol'' linebacking corps, won a division title and qualified for the playoffs four times between 1987 and 1992. They were 59-24 against the rest of the NFL during that period, a .710 winning percentage. Against San Francisco, they were just 3-9 in that six-year stretch, with five of those losses by a frustrating combination of only 15 points. 

Jan 14, 2012; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) escapes San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith (bottom) during the first quarter of the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 14, 2012; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) escapes San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith (bottom) during the first quarter of the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Younger Saints fans have also gotten to experience bitter heartbreak at the hands of the 49ers. In a 2012 Divisional Playoff showdown, one of the most talented New Orleans teams in franchise history had their season ended in miraculous fashion by San Francisco during a 36-32 last-second defeat. The unfathomable finish spoiled a record-breaking season by Saints QB Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense. 

Three seasons later, the 49ers pulled out a 27-24 overtime defeat of the Saints in New Orleans. On the final play of regulation, Brees completed a 47-yard touchdown pass to TE Jimmy Graham on a Hail Mary for an apparent victory. It was wiped out by an offensive interference penalty called on Graham, a call made about as often as a person hits the big sweepstakes lottery twice. The loss ultimately cost the Saints a postseason berth in an NFC South division that they lost by just a half game.

Nov 9, 2014; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) catches an apparent touchdown, but was flagged for offensive pass interference on the last play of regulation against the San Francisco 49ers. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 9, 2014; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) catches an apparent touchdown, but was flagged for offensive pass interference on the last play of regulation against the San Francisco 49ers. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This year's version of the 49ers are in a dogfight in the NFC West. They come into this game with one of the league's best defenses and three game-breaking threats on an underrated offense. 

A win over the heavily favored 49ers on Sunday doesn't guarantee New Orleans anything.  They'll still need to put together a winning streak down the stretch to overcome their disappointing start.  If they can bounce back and go on a postseason run, it would mean that they ran through old division rivals, including a long-time nemesis, to do it.

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