The New Orleans Saints host the San Francisco 49ers this afternoon at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX in a game that could carry significant playoff implications as the NFC postseason picture continues to develop. The Saints (7-2) are in first place in the NFC South looking to maintain their winning ways at home and stay at least a game ahead of the surging Carolina Panthers. The 49ers (6-3) are trying to keep pace with the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks and also bounce back from last week’s disappointing home loss to the Panthers.
Head coach Sean Payton’s Saints have yet to lose in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season and are coming off of their best performance of the season last week in which they posted 49 points and an NFL-record 40 first downs against Dallas. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers have played very well on the road (3-1), but the offense led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick has struggled on more than one occasion. The 49ers managed just nine points and 151 yards of offense in last week’s 10-9 loss at home to Carolina.
3 Things to Watch
Saints’ Home Cooking
New Orleans is one of five teams undefeated at home (5-0) this season, joining Denver, Kansas City, New England and Seattle in this distinction. The Saints’ dominance in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, however, goes far beyond their perfect record. In five home games, the Saints are averaging 35.2 points and 463.6 yards per game on offense, including the 49 points and 625 yards they put up on Dallas last Sunday night. It hasn’t just been the offense flexing its muscles in front of the raucous home crowd either. The defense, which has gone from the NFL’s worst to one of the top units under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, is allowing just 15 points and 287.4 yards per home contest. The Saints are an entirely different team in the Big Easy than on the road, as the Superdome has become one of the loudest and most intimidating home environments in the NFL. San Francisco is somewhat familiar with this, although the 49ers were the ones who came out victorious in a 31-21 decision last season in the Superdome. There’s one rather large caveat when it comes to that game however. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended all of the 2012 season for his role in the Saints’ Bountygate scandal, and his absence clearly showed as the team stumbled to a 7-9 record. With Payton on the sidelines, the Saints have won 13 in a row at home. It’s safe to say that Cajun food isn’t the only type of home cooking happening down in the Big Easy.
“Dome Sweet Dome” for Kaepernick?
As was referenced above, this will not be Colin Kaepernick’s first game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Besides beating New Orleans in Week 12 of the 2012 regular season, San Francisco returned to the Superdome two months later to play Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII. Now while the 49ers came up short against the Ravens, Kaepernick played pretty well in both of these games and perhaps the somewhat familiar surroundings can help jumpstart what has been a very inconsistent 2013 campaign for the athletic, dual-threat quarterback. In two games at the Superdome last season, Kaepernick was 32-of-53 passing (60.4 percent) for 533 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions and he also rushed 13 times for 89 yards (6.8 ypc) and two scores. Those numbers may not jump off of the page, but they are considerably better than what he’s been averaging this season. In nine games, Kaepernick has a total of 12 touchdowns (9 pass, 3 rush) to go along with nine turnovers (5 INTs, 4 fumbles). He is completing 56.4 of his passes for an average of only 186.1 yards per game and his rushing average is down (5.8 ypc compared to 6.6 in 2012) as well. The 49ers are still winning games, but they are dead last in the NFL in passing offense. Can Kaepernick rediscover last season’s form in the dome? It remains to be seen, but two potential obstacles in the way are the absences of wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Crabtree is recovering from a torn Achilles he sustained in late March and while he is closer to returning, he is considered a longshot at best to play this afternoon. Meanwhile, Davis sustained a concussion last week and will need to pass the mandatory tests before he is cleared to face the Saints. In the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens in February, Crabtree and Davis combined for 11 catches, 213 yards and a touchdown. So while it may be a familiar scene for Kaepernick this afternoon, he likely won’t see the same faces when he drops back and scans the field for an open target.
Which Defense Stands Tall?
San Francisco is sixth in the NFL in total defense and fourth in scoring defense, which is not a surprise to anyone who closely follows the league. However, it’s New Orleans’ defense that’s opening many people’s eyes in 2013, as the Saints are just behind the 49ers in both categories. First-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has done nothing short of a miracle in turning around a unit that set an NFL record for yards allowed (7,042) last season into one of the league’s stingiest in 2013. Statistically speaking, only seven total yards and eight points separate these two defenses. The 49ers have done a little better job stopping the run, while the Saints are giving up less than 200 yards passing per game. The Saints’ defense has been at its best at home, using its attacking style to create pressure (29 sacks, tied for 8th in the NFL) and force teams to make mistakes (15 takeaways). The 49ers have allowed more than 300 yards passing to a team just once and that was Green Bay back in Week 1. On the road, San Francisco’s defense is yielding 291 yards and less than 17 points per contest. New Orleans’ high-powered offense will no doubt be one of the toughest tests San Francisco has faced this season, but the reality is that even if the 49ers’ defense is able to slow down Drew Brees and company, the Saints’ stop-unit could have just as much say, if not more, in the outcome of this game.
San Francisco Key Player: Frank Gore, RB
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been very inconsistent as a passer this season, putting more pressure on Gore to carry the load on the ground. The veteran workhorse is sixth in the NFL in rushing with 700 yards and tied for third with seven rushing touchdowns. Gore is averaging 4.3 yards per carry this season and, not surprisingly, has been instrumental in the 49ers’ success. In the team’s six wins, Gore is averaging 86.7 yards rushing per game. That drops to 60 yards per contest when the 49ers lose, and all seven of Gore’s rushing touchdowns have come in victories. As well as New Orleans’ defense has played this season, teams have said some success running the ball (117.7 rushing ypg). The 49ers obviously need Kaepernick to be more productive when he drops back to throw, and a strong game from Gore could go a long ways towards making his quarterback’s job easier.
New Orleans Key Player: Mark Ingram, RB
The Saints are more known for their passing attack, but that doesn’t mean head coach Sean Payton totally ignores the ground game. New Orleans is 23rd in the NFL in rushing offense at 97.8 yards per game, but posted a season-high 242 yards in last week’s 49-17 rout of Dallas. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles have been the primary ball carriers this season, but it was Ingram who broke out in a big way against the Cowboys. Prior to this past Sunday night, Ingram had totaled 50 yards rushing on 21 carries (2.4 ypc), as a toe injury and ineffectiveness had limited him to just three games. Against Dallas, Ingram exploded for 145 yards on just 14 carries (10.4 ypc) running over Cowboy defenders and refusing to let the first would-be tackler bring him down, looking every bit of the Heisman Trophy winner he was as a sophomore at Alabama in 2009. The Saints don’t need 100-plus yards out of Ingram every game, although they will gladly take it. They just need their 2011 first-round pick to be the between-the-tackles runner they drafted him to be. When effective, Ingram is the powerful, punishing rusher that rounds out the Saints’ talented backfield trio. In other words, a productive Ingram gives head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael yet another weapon to play with, which is pretty much the last thing an opposing defensive coordinator wants to worry about.
This game could have serious playoff implications by the time the dust settles in the NFC. New Orleans is trying to stay ahead of Carolina in the NFC South, while San Francisco can ill afford another loss with NFC West-leading Seattle already three games up on the 49ers in the win column. San Francisco may be the defending NFC champs, but this is a team still searching for its identity on offense, while the Saints have shown they are much more than just Drew Brees throwing the ball all over the field.
The Saints have been near unstoppable at home this season and while I don’t expect Brees and company to march down the field at will; I do think Sean Payton and his quarterback will be able to find some plays that work against the 49ers’ defense. On the other side of the ball, the Saints’ defense adds to Collin Kaepernick’s woes, as the 49ers lose their second game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a span of less than 10 months.
New Orleans 24, San Francisco 20