Before the NFL shifted teams around in the 2002 realignment, the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers were in the same division. Many Saints fans remember the old NFC West that featured the Atlanta Falcons, Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams with Saints and 49ers.
The Carolina Panthers were in the old NFC West for a cup of coffee as well. In that old division, everyone most seasons looked up at mighty San Francisco.
From 1970-2001 (with Saints, 49ers, Falcons & Rams), San Francisco won the NFC West 16 times. The 49ers were also a wild card team four times.
During that same time period the Saints won the division a total of two times (1991, 2000) and were a wild card team three times (1987, 1990, 1992). The 49ers made the playoffs 20 times and New Orleans just five times in those 31 years.
After the formation of the NFC South 2002-11), New Orleans has won the division three times and has been a wild card team once. San Francisco on the other hand has won the division twice and has not been a wild card team.
Here is a little more history for you. The last time the 49ers beat the Saints was January 6, 2002. New Orleans has been San Francisco (2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010) six straight times since that game.
New Orleans has become a different team since leaving the NFC West. In the NFC South the Saints won their first playoff game and broke through for their first Super Bowl.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s the 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL. San Francisco was loaded with talent and future hall of famers.
Roles have reversed since the 2000’s with the Saints being the team loaded talent and future hall of famers. New Orleans now can step over their former division rival on their way to the NFC Championship game.
This game will be all about defense versus offense. San Francisco is ranked fourth in total defense and New Orleans has the first ranked total offense.
The 49ers are the NFL’s best ranked rushing defense (ranked first) only allowing 77.3 yards per game and the Saints bring in the sixth best rushing offense averaging 132.9 yards per game.
San Francisco’s biggest challenge will be getting their 16th ranked passing offense that is allowing 231 yards per game to stop the New Orleans passing offense that is ranked first in the NFL putting up 334 passing yards each contest.
The Saints are putting up 34.2 points a game and the 49ers are only allowing 14.3 points. San Francisco offense must find ways to keep up with New Orleans on the scoreboard.
On offense the 49ers are ranked 26th in total offense against a Saints defense that is ranked 24th overall. San Francisco’s strength is their running game which is ranked eighth put up 127.8 yards on the ground.
New Orleans has the 12th ranked rushing defense giving up 108.6 yards per game rushing. The weakness of the Saints defense is their pass defense which is ranked 30th allowing 260 yards through the air.
San Francisco cannot take advantage of the poor pass defense because the 49ers are ranked 29th in the NFL is passing. The 49ers are only gaining 183 yards passing per game.
Think about this, Denver is the first ranked rushing team and 31st ranked passing team. No one is giving Denver a chance against New England but San Francisco has a chance to beat New Orleans?
Yes, San Francisco statistically has a better defense but there is something else the 49ers do that is winning games. The 49ers have the best turnover margin in the NFL at plus 28 for the season.
San Francisco has forced 38 takeaways (23 interceptions, 15 fumble recoveries), which is tied with Green Bay and has only 10 giveaways (5 interceptions, 5 fumbles lost). New Orleans struggles at forcing turnovers but really doesn’t turn the ball over that much.
The Saints are 3rd in the NFL with 19 giveaways (14 interceptions, 5 fumbles) but have only forced 16 takeaways (9 interceptions, 7 fumble recoveries) for a minus three on the season.
Looking at all the stats there was one interesting thing I found. In the 49ers three losses they lost in average yards per pass (Arizona 9.3, Cowboys 9.9, and Baltimore 7.0). In those loses, San Francisco had 4.0 against Ravens, 3.9 against Cardinals, and 5.5 against Cowboys.
As long as the 49ers keep it with in yard or win the battle of yards per completion and win the turnover battle, San Francisco wins. That means San Francisco is open to deep passes down the field and no team is better at deep passes down the field than the Saints.
New Orleans had three loses in the regular season and all three were on the road. In the Saints road games they were out rushed five times.
Those five games were against Green Bay (loss), Carolina (30-27 win), Tampa Bay (loss), St. Louis (loss), and Atlanta (26-23 OT/win). On the road, New Orleans gave up 971 yards rushing in eight road games for a 121.4 average.
At home, the Saints only gave up 767 rushing yards at home for 96 yard average in eight home games. That means the Saints must limit the 49ers rushing yards. When the Saints won the rushing battle they beat Jacksonville 23-10, Tennessee 22-17, and Minnesota 42-20.
Injuries could decide this game. New Orleans has injuries to linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Jonathan Casillas, wide receivers Lance Moore (hamstring) and Robert Meachem (knee), and safety Roman Harper (ankle).
This game should see all hands on deck if players can get on the field and be productive. Lance Moore might not play but is Drew Brees favorite safety blanket and big play receiver when he does play.
San Francisco is pretty healthy after their bye week. Only players on the injury report are wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion). Tight End Delanie Walker is out with a broken jaw and Williams might not play unless he is cleared by doctors.
New Orleans doesn’t need to rush the ball for a ton of yards but needs to run the ball effectively. Saints need to run the ball to keep the 49ers honest, set up play action pass, and to set the tone physically.
In the passing game the Saints need to throw the ball down the field and test the 49ers’ secondary. New Orleans must block San Francisco rookie linebacker Aldon Smith who had 14 sacks this season with two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Both these teams feature very good tight ends. San Francisco has Vernon Davis, who they move all over the field and will send deep, and New Orleans has Jimmy Graham, same type of mold as Davis and Saints use him in a similar fashion.
A big part of this game will be which team can get the biggest plays out of their tight end.
The Saints use a stable of backs and the 49ers will use Frank Gore as a work horse. On the offensive side of the ball the 49ers does not have a player like Darren Sproles.
Getting the ball in Sproles hands in space will force the 49ers to slow their rush of Drew Brees. The screen game will be huge to keep Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis honest.
In the kicking game the 49ers are very good. Ted Ginn Jr. can return kicks for big yardage. New Orleans again can answer with Sproles.
The biggest difference in this game is that Alex Smith, 49ers quarterback, must get his team into the end zone. Too many times San Francisco settled for field goals instead of touchdowns.
San Francisco cannot kick field goals and beat the Saints. The only way the 49ers beat New Orleans is with touchdowns.
Drew Brees will get the Saints into the end zone and all the pressure will be on Alex Smith to keep pace scoring. The pressure will also be on the 49ers defense to make stops to keep the game close.
New Orleans knows that they just have to force field goals and their offense will score touchdowns to win the game. Saints’ defense also knows their offense will gamble to score points and keep drive alive.
It always helps to play loose on defense when you know your offense is playing to win. 49ers offense plays to keep it close and limit mistakes.
San Francisco need to force turnovers but the offense needs to cash those turnovers into touchdowns. If the 49ers manage to get turnovers but no points, one would assume that New Orleans will get into the end zone.
I believe this game will be close but San Francisco will not be able to keep pace scoring wise with the 49ers. Brees will go down field for big plays and will force the 49ers to play more coverage which will open up the running game.
Alex Smith will force plays to try to keep pace and allow the Saints to make turnovers. New Orleans will blitz Smith, who makes bad decisions under pressure.
Saints fans will be rooting for the New York Giants on Sunday after they win this game on Saturday. New Orleans would then host the NFC Championship game.
Pick: New Orleans
Saints 31 49ers 16