The New Orleans Saints go to San Francisco on Saturday to face the 49ers in the first divisional round game of the weekend. Last weekend, the Saints steamrolled a Detroit Lions team that was thought to have somewhat of a shot at winning, being one of a handful of teams that could score enough points to keep up with them. Lo and behold, though, them Saints scored 35 second-half points en route to a 45-28 win after being down 14-10 at halftime, and are now just two games away from appearing in their second Super Bowl in three years.
San Francisco, on the other hand, is looking to get to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994, when they beat up on the San Diego Chargers 49-26. Steve Young was the 49ers quarterback at the time for a 49ers team that, if they existed today, could probably compete with the Saints offensively. Sadly, that's not the case now, as the 49ers were 29th in the league in passing yards this season with 2005 number one overall pick Alex Smith at the helm.
Smith had his best season this year, however, with the 49ers, throwing for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions. At the same time, he ran an offense that has remained conservative by nature since he took over the reins as a starter. And, by extension, the 49ers have remained one-dimensional for a long time now in spite of Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore being so productive. But come game time against the Saints, Smith may have to step out of his comfort zone more than usual by airing it out. Tight end Vernon Davis is versatile enough to go deep over the middle while receiver Michael Crabtree can use his speed to coast down the sideline for the big play.
We know what Drew Brees can do. He broke Dan Marino's passing record one week before the NFL season was even over thanks to the arsenal he has at his disposal. That arsenal includes breakout tight end Jimmy Graham who broke the season record for yards by a tight end, only to have that record broken by New England Patriots breakout tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brees can literally pick apart defenses by dropping dimes. But, that's where San Francisco's defense comes in.
While the 49ers defense doesn't have the greatest secondary, their front seven is arguably the best in the league and a group that greatly helped account for the 49ers being fifth in total defense during the season. Additionally, having had one extra week for linebacker Patrick Willis to rest up will be crucial. The healthier he is, the more the 49ers have a chance of disrupting Drew Brees, although that means bowling over two Pro Bowl guards in Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans.
However, all this talk of the passing game doesn't mean each team won't maximize run opportunities. The Saints still have a three-headed monster with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory in the backfield, despite rookie sensation Mark Ingram going to injured reserve. All three will challenge the 49ers' front seven if things get tough for Brees or if Sean Payton wants to open up the play-action game.
Meanwhile, the 49ers just have a one-headed monster in Frank Gore, who rushed for 1,200 yards this season, his highest total since 2006 when he rushed for about 1,700. Even with the 49ers' emphasis on the run game, which could work against them, the bright side is that New Orleans has struggled against the power run game all year, despite being 12th in the league in run defense. The San Francisco offensive line has played its best ball in a while, and if it can open enough holes for Gore to run through and keep the chains moving, the 49ers can keep the Saints off of the field longer.
It comes down to this: It will be utterly surprising if Alex Smith doesn't throw the ball more than 25 times. However, even if he does, the receivers he targets aren't as experienced as the Saints'. The Saints receivers are just too deep. New Orleans is also balanced in the run game, while San Francisco depends way too much on Gore. The 49ers defense will keep the Saints offense from blowing them out, but nonetheless, the Saints will get the win and advance-Saints 28, 49ers 20