GLS Preview & Prediction: Saints-49ers

Remember when these teams were mired in mediocrity together in the NFC? For six years between 2003 and 2008, the Saints and 49ers combined for a total of one winning season out of 12. But then of course New Orleans got good and became a juggernaut and now the Niners have finally caught up. This might be the game of the weekend, which pretty much means it’ll be downhill after about 4:30 p.m. PT on Saturday.

The top storylines:

1. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object: New Orleans has the league’s second-ranked scoring offense, while San Fran has the league’s second-ranked scoring defense. The Saints have scored at least 42 points in four straight games while the Niners have held their last three opponents at Candlestick to a grand total of 10 points.

2. Alex Smith makes his playoff debut. The top pick of the 2005 draft is finally paying off!

3. Drew Brees looks for his first road playoff victory. In fact, despite their recent success, the Saints have never won a playoff game outside of New Orleans (unless you count Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, which was obviously a neutral site).

The last time they met…

  • The Saints won 25-22 in San Francisco in September of 2010, but that’s largely irrelevant considering how much both teams have changed since then.
  • That said, it’s at least a tad interesting that the then-inferior Niners amassed 130 more yards and seven more first downs than the Saints. They were also more efficient on third down and didn’t give up any sacks while recording two. San Fran completely outplayed New Orleans, losing by three points because of one major problem: turnovers. The 49ers had four of ‘em, while the Saints had zero. This year, the Niners had the best turnover ratio in the league (plus-28) while the Saints were minus-3.

Injuries to watch:

  • The Saints might not have safety Roman Harper at full strength, as he’s been missing practice time with a surprise ankle injury. That could loom large for the New Orleans defense. Jury’s still out on Lance Moore (hamstring) after he missed Saturday’s game against the Lions.
  • The 49ers are getting healthier as Patrick Willis continues to get better. He’ll be unlimited Saturday. Ray McDonald (hamstring) should also be back for the Niners, who were only missing one player — receiver Delanie Walker — at their Wednesday practice.

And here are seven factors that have me picking the Niners, along with a few that have my thinking it’ll be a very close game:

1.┬áThe Saints aren’t the same on the road and outdoors. You’ve probably heard this one a few times already, and we established earlier this week that it’s probably been exaggerated a bit, but Brees and the Saints clearly take a step backward on grass and under the skies. Most pass-heavy teams do. But two of the Saints’ three losses this season came under those circumstances, and in five games outdoors they only managed to outscore their opponents by an average of one point per game (compared to 23 points per game at home). Brees has never won a playoff game on the road, nor have the Saints in their franchise history.

2. San Fran might have the personnel to stop the Saints’ top offensive threats. Or at least contain them as best a team can. See, this Saints team is different from prior versions because it’s not about the wide receivers, but instead about a tight end (Jimmy Graham) and a pass-catching tailback (Darren Sproles). But if there’s a front seven in the league that is able to cover that duo, it’s San Francisco’s, which has two All-Pro inside linebackers in Willis and NaVorro Bowman. That could force Brees outside more than he’d like, which could be tougher, especially with Moore hurt.

3. And as slippery as Pierre Thomas was against Detroit, he might not be as effective against the league’s top-ranked run defense. San Fran shut down dudes like LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and LeGarrette Blount during the regular season, so that D shouldn’t have too many problems with Sproles, Thomas and the New Orleans running game.

4. Consider the turnover factor: Brees only had the one fumble against the Lions, but he also had a pair of would-be interceptions that were completely dropped by Detroit defenders. But he won’t be able to get away with that in San Fran. The Niners led the entire league with 38 defensive takeaways this season, and New Orleans committed 12 of its 19 turnovers on the road. On the other side of the ball, the Saints had the second-fewest takeaways in football, while the 49ers were quite safe and smart offensively.

5. The Harper injury could play a role. If the 49ers can get an early lead, Frank Gore (who may have benefited greatly from two weeks off) and Kendall Hunter could do some serious damage to a run defense that surrendered 5.0 yards per carry during the regular season and may not have a healthy Harper running things from the secondary.

6. San Francisco might have fixed its red-zone problems. That was their Achilles heel for much of the season, but they’ve managed to score touchdowns on six of their last eight red-zone possessions, and that spans games against the Steelers and Seahawks (both solid defenses). I don’t imagine that’ll be a huge factor Saturday.

7. If the Lions bothered Brees in the Superdome, and with Ndamukong Suh struggling, I fear for Brees in San Fran. San Francisco has 42 sacks during the regular season, which is only one more than Detroit, but rookie Aldon Smith has really come on in recent weeks and the Niners have 16 sacks in their last five games. Brees hardly ever gets sacked, but one of the league’s hottest pass rushes should be a factor.

8. I’m exercising caution, mainly because the Niners haven’t faced a quarterback like Brees all year. So this could be a whole new ballgame for them. Sean Tomlinson elaborated on that factor earlier this week. It should also be noted that on a very primitive level, this battle presents a matchup disadvantage for the Niners, who make their money stopping the run. The Saints, of course, don’t rely on the run very much at all.

9. And because the Saints have the big-play advantage. They gave up a league-high 14 passes of 40 yards or more during the regular season, but I’m not sure that San Fran’s conservative offense can exploit that (they had only six). And we all know what that New Orleans offense can do on any given play.

10. Finally, the Saints are simply red hot. They’re the hottest team in football, and peaking teams scare the hell out of me. I just can’t see them going down without a fight, which is why this is probably a three-point game decided on the last possession.

In conclusion, I still don’t quite get how a 7-1 home team is a 3.5-point underdog against a 5-3 road team, especially considering that the 49ers’ guarded offense actually averaged more points at home than the Saints averaged on the road. This is a steal in Vegas. Under these circumstances, San Francisco is simply a better team.

GLS prediction: 49ers 26, Saints 24

(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)