The best record in the NFC and home-field advantage in the playoffs are on the line Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers travel to face the New Orleans Saints. Both teams enter at 10-2, although they're coming off quite different outcomes in Week 13.
Last Sunday, the 49ers lost a nail-biter in Baltimore. The teams were tied for most of the contest, and neither held a lead larger than seven points. One glaring difference-maker was San Francisco's missed field goal on the final play of the first half. The Ravens escaped with a three-point victory thanks to a field goal on the last play of regulation.
The Saints secured the NFC South title on Thanksgiving night with a win in Atlanta. Despite scoring a touchdown on their first drive, the Saints let the Falcons hang around until the final minute of the game. Atlanta was never able to tie up the game — let alone take a lead — yet the Falcons stayed within 11 points until early in the fourth quarter. Two successful onside kicks during the final four minutes helped Atlanta keep things interesting late but the Saints' 26-9 lead with less than seven minutes to play proved to be too much to overcome.
The 49ers lead the all-time series, 48-26-2. For games played in New Orleans, the 49ers hold an advantage of 25-14. The teams have split their four most recent meetings going back to the 2012 season. These franchises faced each other twice annually as intra-divisional rivals from 1970 through 2001.
San Francisco at New Orleans
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 8 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: New Orleans -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Drew Brees dent the 49ers' secondary?
San Francisco's pass defense has looked formidable this season. The 49ers have allowed just 134.3 passing yards per game and 85 first downs through the air, both of which are the lowest in the NFL. They have surrendered the fourth-fewest passing touchdowns (12) and are tied for the seventh-most interceptions (11).
San Francisco's defensive backs are not solely responsible for grounding opponents' aerial attacks. The secondary has benefited from consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers have recorded 45 sacks, one fewer than the league leader, and have been credited with 130 quarterback pressures (fourth).
For his part, Brees has had mixed results since returning from hand surgery in Week 10. While he owns a sparkling 72.5 percent completion rate with seven touchdowns to one interception, his 6.8 yards per attempt and 252.5 yards per game are well below his career averages.
2. What will Taysom Hill do this week?
On Thanksgiving night, Hill multi-tasked like few NFL players have done in recent decades. He carried the ball twice for 33 yards and a touchdown. He caught both passes thrown to him for 12 yards and a touchdown. Additionally, he deflected a punt that ended up traveling only eight yards, setting the Saints up on the Falcons' 30-yard line. Four plays later, he raced to the end zone for his first score of the night.
What else could the NFL's most famous Swiss army knife accomplish this season? This season, he has completed two of his three passing attempts for 25 yards. He has rushed 16 times for 127 yards, seven first downs, and a touchdown. He has caught 13 passes for 114 yards, nine first downs, and four touchdowns. And he has returned a kickoff for 12 yards.
Surely, Saints head coach Sean Payton has some gadgets plays designed for him that have not been called yet this season. Hill holds on field goal and extra-point attempts so he's always a threat to run or throw the ball on a fake. He lines up as one of the protectors behind the linemen in punt formation, therefore they could run a direct snap like in previous seasons. Of course, he regularly enters the offensive huddle, meaning he might line up as a quarterback, running back, or wide receiver. It is probable that some tricks are tucked inside Payton's back pocket, just waiting to be unleashed in pivotal moments of this important game.
3. How will Jimmy Garoppolo fare in the boisterous Superdome?
During Garoppolo's first three NFL seasons in New England, he appeared in 17 games, though only two were starts. Most of his time occurred in brief, typically mop-up appearances. After his trade to the Niners, he started the final five meaningless games of the 2017 season, but he sustained a season-ending injury three contests into 2018. Garoppolo has started every game of the current campaign, however, he has not played a significant role in a postseason contest nor in any whose outcome will heavily influence the playoff hopes of his team.
He has only played in one true domed stadium in his NFL career, a loss in Minnesota last season in which he was sacked three times and threw three interceptions. In a high profile game versus Seattle last month, he completed only 24 of 46 passes for 248 passes for a touchdown but threw an interception as well. More glaringly, the Seahawks sacked him five times, and he fumbled away the ball twice. Will the reverberating crowd noise of the Who Dat Nation faze him?
A victory for the Saints would almost ensure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They would hold a one-game lead over the 49ers with only three weeks remaining. They would maintain a superior record of at least one game compared to the Packers. Additionally, they would have the tiebreaker over the 49ers and Seahawks thanks to head-to-head wins.
This game matters even more for San Francisco. The 49ers have the same record as the Seahawks, but they trail in the standings due to their loss at home to Seattle on Veterans' Day. The 49ers cannot afford to drop this game in the chase for both the divisional crown and home-field advantage.
It is unfortunate that such a pivotal matchup will not take place in primetime or, at least, as the late game on Sunday afternoon. This clash deserves a wider audience.
Prediction: Saints 27, 49ers 24
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.