“Montana to Rice for the score!” Nah, not the case this time, but make no bones about it, you don’t win thirteen games with just luck. The 49ers are a very good team and they have won with defense all season long.
With that said, the 49ers have not faced an offense as high-powered and as well-balanced as the New Orleans Saints. San Fran has dominated the series with the Black and Gold dating back to Bobby Hebert’s days in a Saints uniform. But in a league that is all about “what have you done for me lately,” the Saints have dominated the 49ers, winning the last six meetings between the two teams.
First up: If the Saints have some of the best offensive weapons in the game today, you have to admit the 49ers have some of the best defensive players as well. Here’s Coach Sean Payton on the 49ers LB Patrick Willis:
“When you sit down and look at the measurables you look for at inside linebacker position, he has that size, that strength; he has very good speed…So you start putting a lot of check marks before you even get to intangibles. When you have a player like that, all of a sudden you have a guy who’s going to play in a lot of Pro Bowls and be one of the best at his position. He certainly fits in their scheme and knows it well and is a real special defensive player.”
The 49ers bring the league’s best rushing defense to the table against the Saints, while the Black and Gold have been rushing the football at a high level during their nine-game win streak. Last week the reliable Pierre Thomas had the hot hand.
“He’s a durable player. He’s one of those guys that does a lot of things well,” Coach Payton said of Thomas. “When you’re coaching a player and you know exactly what you’re going to get in the passing game and in the running game and the play-action pass as a receiver, he’s very intelligent as well. He’s certainly adjusted his game to this level and has played at a very high level. In the postseason, he was a big part of our success in ’09, starting with the kickoff return against Minnesota and the way he played in the Super Bowl. He’s a big part of what we do offensively and he does so much.”
Bottom line: Do the Saints need to rush the ball at a high level win pick up their first playoff win away from the Big Easy? No! But it sure would help. If New Orleans can maintain a decent balance on offense, it will enhance their chances to avoid being in a close game and instead have some breathing room between themselves and the home-team 49ers.
Never give up! 49ers fans haven't given up on quarterback Alex Smith, and this season he has come up with consistent play and posted the best numbers of his career. In fact, San Francisco QB Alex Smith is in my eyes the NFL comeback player of the year.
Smith has enjoyed career highs in completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio, and passing yards. So why is Smith playing much better now than before? Saints Defensive Coordinator Greg Williams gives his thoughts.
“He’s done a great job. I think Jim (Harbaugh) has done a great job. Wherever he’s going to coach, at whatever level, because he’s played at all three, four, five levels of ball, I see a lot of Alex in Jim in how Jim played the game at those times,” Williams said. “When you get a particular player who has risen up the ranks at this level, there’s a little magic in getting him to listen to you. All a player at this level wants to know at this level is if you actually understand what he’s going through, understand that you can help him get better, so I’m sure that when Alex looks at Jim, he knows that Jim exactly knows the pitfalls and strengths and weaknesses of how to play the position.”
Despite not throwing for 300 yards in any contest this season, Smith has done a great job of utilizing the weapons around him in running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis, and wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
If Smith is going to have success against the Saints, he will need to dictate when he has to pass the football instead of being forced to throw it. In week two of the 2010 season, Smith completed 23 of 32 passes for 275 yards with one touchdown and two picks. Smith did not play bad against the Saints a year ago, and having faced a Greg Williams defense before should give him some confidence this time around.
Now the major factor the Saints will have to deal with is 49ers running back Frank Gore. Last year Gore had 112 yards and one touchdown in the game against the Saints, but Gore also had seven receptions for fifty-six yards. So, the threat of Gore catching the ball out of the back field is something the Saints defense will certainly have to pay attention to.
And finally, I’ll give you my prediction. People forget the national media and pay attention to the boys in Vegas. The line is at 3 and a half, and well, more often than not, the odds-makers are right on. This game will be competitive and close, but when you add everything up the obvious choice is the Saints.
New Orleans is red-hot and they are just clicking right now. And the weather will not be a factor, at least for this week. Look for New Orleans to do much better in rushing the football against the 49ers than their previous opponents. And, Drew Brees will get his as well.
So lay the three and a half and take the Saints over the 49ers.