There are great offenses. There are great defenses. And then you have the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers. These two teams have been the standard bearers for the NFL offensively and defensively respectively. And now they meet in the divisional round of the playoffs in the city by the bay.
QB Drew Brees has been out of this world this year. And he carried that over with his 33/43, 466 yard and 3 TD performance against the Detroit Lions. But for those that watched the game, the Saints didn't really start going until they got some big plays via the run and short dump pass to RB Pierre Thomas. Thomas, along with jitterbug RB Darren Sproles, have the unenviable task on taking on the best run defense in football. The 49ers have allowed only 2 rushing TDs this year to go along with only allowing a league-best 77.3 rushing yards per game. As we all know, the Saints like to put the ball in the air, but the running game will play a role if the Saints are to win. Another key thing to watch in this game will be the pressure on Drew Brees. DE Justin Smith will be key in producing pressure in Brees' face. The pressure up the middle seems to affect Brees more than pressure coming from the outside. If Smith, DE Ray McDonald and crew clog the middle and make their presence felt, then Brees, who is barely six foot tall, will not have the throwing lanes he needs to be successful. The final key of the game is the presence of 49ers LBs Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. These two guys, along with safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, will be key in taking away Brees' best weapons, TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles. The more San Francisco can limit these guys, the more they enhance their chances. If these two get going, it could be a long day for the Niners.
QB Alex Smith has had his best season ever as a professional. But even with that, many folks doubt he can produce in a pressure-filled situation. The time is now if he is to prove the doubters wrong, but not in the way that most would think. Smith must continue to get the 49ers offense in the correct sets and plays against a Saints defense that can be vulnerable. The Saints have been opportunistic, but they cannot be as opportunistic if you play smart and take care of the football. RB Frank Gore had another productive season (282 carries, 1211 yards, 8 TDs). And he will again be counted on to be the focus of the offense. Gore must make the Saints pay for being pretty porous in run defense. The more effective the 49ers are on the ground, the less possessions Bress has to wreak havoc on the field. Another key matchup will be the Saints DBs vs Michael Crabtree and the 49ers passing game. Crabtree, along with the presence of TE Vernon Davis, have been giving teams fits when the Niners pass. He must continue his strong play down the stretch to give Smith a big-time threat down the field. Saints S Malcolm Jenkins will more than likely draw the assignment of keeping Davis in check. If Jenkins allows Davis to stretch the Saints defense, that makes the 49ers even that much more dangerous. Also, if S Roman Harper is caught covering anyone, the Niners must look to take advantage of him. Harper's more trouble rushing the passer(7.5 sacks) than in the passing game. Lastly, WR/PR/KR Ted Ginn must be paid attention to. He could take it the distance every time he touches the ball.
As far as the game, I expect the 49ers to come out throwing before they settle into the running game to break their tendencies offensively. This Saints will come out gunning like they usually do. The difference in this week and last week is they are playing a better defense and a better team than the Lions were. Pace and tempo along with the crowd and the outdoors will be in the 49ers favor. That, along with a big play from Ginn in the return game and some good field goal kicking, will lead the 49ers to a win against the Saints in Monster Park.
Prediction: San Francisco 27, New Orleans 24