The last decade of games between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints games have been full of classics, with five of the seven meetings decided by four points or fewer. Sunday's game at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome will test that streak, as these recent NFC powerhouses are headed on divergent paths.
The 49ers have struggled over the past few weeks, partially due to rampant injuries. Going into this week, San Francisco has 19 players on the injured reserve list. The multitude of missing players contributed to the 49ers' dropping their two previous games by double-digits.
But while the Niners have been going down, the Saints have been on the rise. With the NFC South lead at stake last Sunday night, the Saints crushed the Buccaneers. New Orleans scored a touchdown during its first possession. And that was all the points that the Saints would need in a 38-3 blowout. Any chance at a miraculous comeback ended when the Bucs failed to put the ball in the end zone after recovering a fumble at the Saints' 21-yard line early in the second half.
The 49ers lead this all-time series, 49-26-2, and they even hold a 26-14 advantage in games at New Orleans. Starting with their meeting in the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs in the 2011 season, San Francisco has won four of the last six meetings, including last year's 48-46 thriller.
San Francisco at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 15 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the 49ers keep it a low-scoring game?
San Francisco's defense has served as the catalyst for the 49ers' fortunes. In four victories, the defense has limited opponents to 16 or fewer points. When they have allowed only one touchdown, San Francisco has won all four times. On the other hand, the 49ers have allowed 24 or more points in all five losses, including more than 30 in three of those.
New Orleans' offense has proved difficult to curtail. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Drew Brees and Co. have scored no fewer than 24 points in any game this season. In fact, they have scored three or more touchdowns in all but one contest, and even then, they still scored a pair.
More ominously for San Francisco, Drew Brees has all of his targets back for this contest. Last week, Michael Thomas saw action in his first game since the season-opener and caught five of his six targets for 51 yards. Emmanuel Sanders hauled in four of the five balls intended for him for 38 yards and a touchdown after being quarantined for the two previous contests. In total, Brees connected with 12 different teammates against the Buccaneers.
As if the 49ers do not have enough to occupy them with both leading wide receivers returning for the Saints, Taysom Hill looked like the Swiss Army knife again last Sunday. He completed both pass attempts for 48 yards. He ran seven times for 54 yards. And he also caught a pass for 21 yards.
2. Will the 49ers make trips to the red zone productive?
The Saints' defense finally found a way to halt its weakness inside its own 20-yard line at Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers only penetrated the red zone once. That drive resulted in a turnover on downs, one yard short of the end zone. The season, the Saints have allowed opponents to score touchdowns 20 times after entering the red zone 25 times, by far the worst mark in the league.
San Francisco must drive for multiple touchdowns in order to win. The 49ers have entered the red zone 33 times. They have scored touchdowns at the end of 23 of those drives. Their 15 rushing touchdowns lead the NFL. Those include nine scores of less than 10 yards and four from between 10 and 20 yards.
3. Who will be available for San Francisco's offense?
The 49ers' offense will take the field without several first-string members. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will miss his second consecutive game. The leader in terms of receptions (37) and receiving yards (474) and co-leader in receiving touchdowns (two), George Kittle, will not be available. Kendrick Bourne ranks third in two categories, with 25 receptions for 352 yards, and he cannot play. Also absent will be Raheem Mostert, second on the team in rushing attempts (51) and first in rushing yards (303).
Therefore, San Francisco will have to resort to several reserve players. Quarterback Nick Mullens will start his fourth game of the season, having completed 91 of 133 passing attempts for 1,143 yards, five touchdowns, and four interceptions. One possible starting running back, Tevin Coleman, has only appeared in three games this season with one start, having carried the ball 21 times for 50 yards and caught three passes for 34 yards. Another running back, Jerick McKinnon, has carried the ball 59 times for 261 yards and five touchdowns. One expected starting wide receiver, Brandon Aiyuk has 28 receptions for 371 yards and two touchdowns. The other, Deebo Samuel, has caught 16 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown and is a long shot to play on Sunday due to a hamstring injury.
Although San Francisco is located in the basement of the NFC West, the 49ers are only two and a half games out of first place. However, they have only won two out of six NFC contests. They cannot afford to drop more conference matchups if they hold any hopes of winning the division or at least securing a wild-card berth.
The Saints took a huge step toward a record-setting fourth consecutive NFC South championship by sweeping Tampa Bay. However, their lead is just a half-game at this point. They cannot afford to relax and drop a game against an opponent whom they should beat. Sean Payton should remind his team of the 49ers' drive of 63 yards in 53 seconds for a field goal to escape the Superdome with a victory last season.
Prediction: Saints 37, 49ers 20
— 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.