-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)
No. 3 New Orleans (13-3) at No. 2 San Francisco (13-3)
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX
There is no hotter team in the land than the New Orleans Saints. They are riding a league-high nine-game winning streak and dropped nearly half-a-hundred on the Detroit Lions last weekend. Since the bye (Week 11), Drew Brees and the Saints have won seven games by an average of 20 points per game with only one decided by less than two touchdowns (Tennessee, 22-17). Of those seven wins, four have come against playoff teams (including last weekend). Sean Payton's bunch has been in playoff mode for the better part of two months.
And Brees has been magical down the stretch. Since the bye week, he has averaged 373.8 yards per game and didn’t throw an interception in five of the seven games. He has thrown 26 touchdown passes over that span and completed more than 72.2% of his passes in five of his last six games.
So it is safe to say the Saints are rolling.
They lead the NFL in third-down offense (56.7%), finished second in the league in sacks allowed and fourth in giveaways. They protect Brees and they protect the football. New Orleans has scored at least 40 points in four straight games, has won six straight games over 2011 playoff teams (the only blemish coming in Week 1 against Green Bay) and possesses the all-time NFL single-season all-purpose yardage leader in Darren Sproles. Yup, that is right — Sproles’ 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011 were an all-time NFL record. No wonder the Fighting Fleur De Lis opened as a 3-point favorite (for entertainment purposes only, of course).
So against a team that scored 40 points one time all season — in fact, the 49ers topped 30 points only three times all year — all signs point to an easy win for the Saints, right?
Not if Jim Harbaugh has something to say about it.
The Cult of Personality head coach has instantly changed the business culture in the Bay Area. And how this game is played will likely determine the winner. The San Francisco 49ers led the NFL not only in takeaways (38) but also in giveaways as well (10), so the Niners are all but assured of winning the turnover differential. Additionally, they lead the NFL in rushing defense and finished second in the league in scoring defense, allowing a miniscule 14.3 points per contest.
Harbaugh isn’t afraid of anyone, and his team plays with the same confidence. Offensively, the 49ers should be able to control the clock and pick up first downs by physically dominating the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Alex Smith hasn’t turned the ball over (5 INT, 0 fumbles lost) this season and will need to continue to protect the ball if the Niners expect to keep up with the Saints. Because his 17 touchdown passes this year are as exactly as many as Brees has had in his last four games.
Converting on third down and scoring touchdowns instead of field goals — two things the 49ers have struggled to do in 2011 — will be the only way San Francisco can pull the upset. New Orleans owns the best third-down offense in the league and finished sixth in the league in red zone touchdown percentage, reaching paydirt on 59.3% of its trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The 49ers, however, were nearly dead last in the NFL in both categories. They converted on only 29.4% of third downs (31st in the NFL) and scored touchdowns on only 40.7% of trips into the red zone (30th in the NFL). If the Niners can’t sustain drives and score 3s instead of 7s, it could be a long day for Harbaugh.
That said, the Niners also enter the postseason playing well, having won three straight games. They, too, were successful against the NFL’s best, going 3-1 against playoff teams this fall. This game is outdoors on a natural grass surface, which bodes very well for the home team as the Saints are 3-2 outdoors this year and 10-1 in a dome. And Harbaugh certainly wouldn’t mind a little soggy weather rolling in last minute either. But the style of the game is still going to be the deciding factor.
Harbaugh knows he has to keep the score down to win.
San Francisco finished 3-2 in games in which the opposition scored 20 points or more and was 10-1 in which they held the opponent to less than 20 points. There is nothing shocking about winning games when the defense stops the opponent from scoring, but two of the three losses this season came against a team that was able to reach that 20-point plateau. The 49ers are comfortable playing, and would prefer, a low-scoring, tightly contested affair.
The Saints, however, are 6-3 in games in which the opponent scored at least 20 points. They are just as comfortable out-dueling the other team’s offense as the Niners are at eking out victories on defense.
If the 49ers can maintain possession of the ball by converting on third down, score touchdowns instead of field goals, and lastly, pressure Brees with arguably the most dominant front seven in all of football, then the 49ers will win the game.
But if San Francisco is going three and out, settling for field goals and giving Brees time to throw, it will not keep up with the Saints.
The Over/Under total for the game (again, for entertainment purposes only) is currently 47.5. If the game goes under, San Francisco will win. If it goes over, New Orleans will move on to the NFC Championship Game.
New Orleans By The Numbers
Scoring Off: 34.2 ppg (2nd)
Passing Off: 334.2 ypg (1st)
Rushing Off: 132.9 ypg (6th)
3rd Down Off: 56.7% (1st)
Giveaways: 19 (4th)
Sacks Allowed: 24.0 (2nd)
Scoring Def: 21.2 ppg (13th)
Passing Def: 259.8 ypg (30th)
Rushing Def: 108.6 ypg (12th)
3rd Down Def: 33.2% (5th)
Takeaways: 16 (31st)
Sacks: 33.0 (19th)
San Francisco By The Numbers:
Scoring Off: 23.8 ppg (11th)
Passing Off: 183.1 ypg (29th)
Rushing Off: 127.8 ypg (8th)
3rd Down Off: 29.4% (31st)
Giveaways: 10 (1st)
Sacks Allowed: 44.0 (25th)
Scoring Def: 14.3 ppg (2nd)
Passing Def: 230.9 ypg (16th)
Rushing Def: 77.3 ypg (1st)
3rd Down Def: 35.2% (11th)
Takeaways: 38 (1st)
Sacks: 42.0 (7th)