Frank Gore
Frank Gore is on pace to rush for less than 1,000 yards for the first time since 2010. Reuters/Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the few constants in the NFL over the last three seasons, never losing more than four games or failing to reach the NFC Championship game. Having already suffered four losses in the first half of the 2014 season, San Francisco is in danger of losing their place among the league’s elite teams.

Two straight defeats have put the 49ers in third place in the NFC West with a .500 record. With their playoff hopes in jeopardy, it doesn’t get much easier when they visit the New Orleans Saints in Week 10.

The Saints have had a very similar season as the 49ers, starting the year as a top Super Bowl favorite in the conference, but only winning four of the first eight games. Because their division is so weak, though, New Orleans finds themselves in first place with much less on the line in their upcoming contest.

San Francisco’s season isn’t over if they lose on Sunday, but time is certainly running out for the 49ers to make a push towards the postseason. The first-place Arizona Cardinals have the best record in the league, and three teams are ahead of them in the race for the two wild-card spots.

“I definitely think that we’re at a point where if we keep going in the direction that we’re going that we’re going to have some trouble at the end of the year,” fullback Bruce Miller said, following San Francisco’s Week 9 loss to the St. Louis Rams. “We said that game was a must-win. Now, these games coming up are even more must-win games.”

During their current two-game losing streak, the 49ers’ biggest issue has been their ability to protect Colin Kaepernick. The quarterback was sacked eight times in St. Louis, even though the Rams began the day with a league-worst six sacks. In San Francisco’s previous defeat, the Denver Broncos tackled Kaepernick six times behind the line of scrimmage.

The 49ers offensive line could be in for another rough day in Week 10. The Saints pass rush has been much improved over the last three weeks, totaling 11 sacks. New Orleans has sacked the quarterback 11 times in their four wins, but just six times in their four losses.

Other than keeping Kaepernick upright, San Francisco’s offensive line needs to do a better job in the running game. The 49ers offense has been built on the run in the last three seasons, never finishing worse than eighth in the NFL. That part of San Francisco’s game hasn’t been nearly as consistent in 2014, and it’s a major reason why the team is three games out of first place.

Kaepernick has 274 yards on 5.1 yards per carry, but it’s the running backs that have struggled. In their four losses, Frank Gore and Carlos Hude lead a group that is averaging just 49.8 yards a game on 3.5 yards per carry. When the 49ers win, their rushers average over 120 yards per game on 4.1 yards per carry.

In New Orleans, it will be difficult for the 49ers to establish a running game. The Saints rank 10th in overall run defense, and they're even better at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where opponents are averaging just 71.3 yards per game on 3.5 yards per carry. A 3.5 yards against average would be good for fifth in the NFL, and no team allows fewer than 71.3 rushing yards per contest.

The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees is almost unbeatable at home. The coach-quarterback tandem hasn’t been defeated in New Orleans since the 2010 season. The Saints are favored by 4.5 points, and the over/under is 49 total points.

PREDICTION: New Orleans over San Francisco, 28-20