Back to the Future: Saints and 49ers Renew an Old Rivalry for NFC Dominance

Bob Rose

The New Orleans Saints host the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday afternoon in a titanic showdown of two of the NFC’s top contenders.  Once upon a time, the Saints and 49ers were divisional rivals in the NFL's old division alignment of the NFC West.  For 31 years between 1970-2001, the Saints and 49ers would battle twice a year.  Much of that time through the mid-1980’s and early 1990's a division title or postseason berth would be at stake when these two clashed.

New Orleans had built a defensive powerhouse in that era, led by their “Dome Patrol” linebacking corps of Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, and Hall of Fame Rickey Jackson.  The Saints balanced that with an underrated offense that included USFL MVP quarterback Bobby Hebert, running backs Rueben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard, wideout Eric Martin, and a rock solid offensive line. Head Coach Jim Mora had ushered in the first “Golden Era” of Saints football.  The team would have its first winning season and playoff berth in franchise history in 1987.  New Orleans would have four postseason appearances in six seasons under Mora, including the franchise’s first division crown in 1991.

Unfortunately for the Saints and the rest of the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers had one of the most dominant dynasties in league history during that same era. Led by Hall of Fame Coach Bill Walsh from 1979 to 88, then George Seifert from ‘89 until 1996, the 49ers would win five Super Bowls and 13 division titles in a 17 year span. Names like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, and Ronnie Lott haunt the nightmares of Saints fans to this day.

Despite being one of the NFC’s most competitive teams, Mora’s New Orleans squads would go just 6-14 against San Francisco, who own a 48-26-2 all-time record against the Saints. Losses to their rival often cost New Orleans a division championship or playoff berth. The two would never meet in the postseason as members of NFC West, but would clash during a 2011 division round showdown in San Francisco. 

The Saints came into that game with one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history behind quarterback Drew Brees, but the 49ers would dish out heartbreak once again. New Orleans would turn the ball over five times in that playoff game, falling to the 49ers 36-32 in the final seconds in one of the most entertaining playoff games of all time.

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Feb 2, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers former quarterback Drew Brees (left) looks towards New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees during the Microsoft future of football press conference at Moscone Center in advance of Super Bowl 50 between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Many of those Saints-49ers matchups through the 1980s and early 90’s featured a marquee showdown between San Francisco’s proficient offenses led by Montana (and later quarterback Steve Young) against the powerful New Orleans defense. Now it’s the Saints led by a future Hall of Fame signal caller in Brees, the league’s top receiver in Michael Thomas, and a versatile weapon in running back Alvin Kamara. The Saints own the league’s 9th best offense, averaging nearly 25 points per game. They will try to crack a San Francisco defense that surrenders just 15 points per game and ranks first in the league in yardage allowed.

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November 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) fumbles the football against defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98), outside linebacker Craig Robertson (52), and defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) during the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium. The Saints defeated the 49ers 41-23. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

An underrated aspect of the Saints-49ers meetings of three decades ago were on the other side of the ball. New Orleans possessed some of the league’s most versatile offensive weapons, but opposed a San Francisco defense that was quietly among the finest in the NFL. In another reversal of roles in this rivalry, the Saints now have one of the league’s most disruptive defenses. Similar to Montana’s 49er squads though, this Saints team known for their offensive success with Brees over the previous 13 years now wins just as many games on the defensive side.

The Saints have held five opponents under 20 points this season and possess arguably the most talented defensive line in the NFL. They line up across from a San Francisco offense that ranks sixth in total yardage, 2nd in rushing, and has scored the second most points in the league.

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Both New Orleans and San Francisco come into Sunday’s game with each other holding 10-2 records. The Saints have already clinched the NFC South, thanks to a 26-18 win in Atlanta on Thanksgiving night. The 49ers are tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West lead, but are second in the standings due to tiebreakers. 

Sunday’s showdown in the Mercedes Benz Superdome between these conference powers in vital for each team in the race for an important top seed in the playoffs. It also represents a nostalgic reminder of each franchise’s past, with the two battling each other for NFC supremacy. Saints are hoping to reverse the script of many of those previous outcomes and earn a small measure of revenge against their frustrating rival. 

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