The surging New Orleans Saints (13-3) travel to northern California to face the upstart San Francisco 49ers (13-3) on Saturday at Candlestick Park in the NFC divisional playoffs as a prolific offense battles an exceptional defense.
New Orleans flew by the Lions' defense last week with 626 total yards, in a blowout victory. The Saints are led by star quarterback Drew Brees, who is having perhaps his best professional season.
Brees was particularly effective in the wild-card game. He completed 33 passes on 43 attempts for 466 yards and three touchdowns. On the season, Brees threw for a record 5,476 yards, and he also passed for 46 touchdowns.
While Brees has always had plenty of wide receivers to throw to since joining the Saints, he has found a new target in Jimmy Graham, who might be the most explosive tight end in the NFL.
As efficient as the passing game has been for New Orleans, the rushing game has been nearly as impressive, as the Saints finished sixth in the NFL in average yards per game (132.9).
A reason the Saints' ground game has somewhat flown under the radar may be due to the team not having one prominent rusher. Instead, Darren Sproles (603 yards), Pierre Thomas (562 yards), Mark Ingram (474 yards), and Chris Ivory (374 yards) all have contributed in helping the Saints' offense thrive.
Sean Payton's squad may need to be at their best to run up points on the 49ers' defense. San Francisco finished second in the league in average points allowed (14.3) and fourth in average total yards per game (308.1).
The 49ers have been particularly strong against the run this season. Led by Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, the 49ers' defense held opposing running games to just 77.3 rushing yards per game, making them the clear leader in the category.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were tied for second in interceptions, with 23.
In other words, there isn't a clear strategy of how to gain an edge on the 49ers' defense.
The offense is led by one of the best running backs in the NFL. Frank Gore had a very strong first half of the season, with five games of more than 100 rushing yards, but cooled off in the second half. Still, the Pro Bowl running back rushed for over 1,200 yards in 2011, and he should be a main weapon against New Orleans.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith is having his best season in the NFL. The sixth-year starter set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), passing yards (3,144), and passer rating (90.7).
Smith has two quality passing targets. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree is an improving talent who led the team with 72 receptions and 874 yards, while former Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis had six touchdown receptions and gained 792 yards.
The 49ers haven't played a game since New Year's Day. This is the first playoff game for the organization since 2002, so Jim Harbaugh's squad should be excited about a home game against the high-octane and playoff-experienced Saints.
This will be a good challenge for us, Saints' head coach Sean Payton said this week. Not just playing on the road, but traveling west.
LINE: The Saints are favored by four points
PREDICTION: The home crowd will be buzzing as the 49ers are finally a Super Bowl contender after so many years. The inexperienced 49ers will take advantage of the home crowd and the extended rest to give the Saints a tougher game than the Lions. But after a long break, San Francisco might be a little rusty against a Saints' team that has been clicking in recent weeks. Expect Alex Smith to struggle in the first half as the Saints love to blitz, and expect New Orleans to take advantage of his mistakes. In the end, Brees should do well in two-minute drills while the 49ers contain the running game. San Francisco's defense won't be enough to keep the game close in the final minutes.
PREDICTED SCORE: New Orleans over San Francisco, 28-17