|Alex Smith (left) and the Niners are neck-and-neck with Drew Brees and the Saints for the NFC's No. 2 seed.|
The Packers have all but wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But the race for No. 2 is dead even after San Francisco lost to Arizona and New Orleans beat Tennessee in Week 14. Who will end up with the other bye in the NFC when all is said and done â the 49ers or the Saints?
Saints find stride at right timeThe NFC playoffs will go through Green Bay but will stop through New Orleans in the process. The Saints really seem to be hitting their stride while the 49ers are maintaining their success.
Both teams have relatively light schedules with one major hurdle -- the Steelers for the 49ers; the Falcons for the Saints.
New Orleans has more potential spoilers with the Vikings and Panthers -- the 49ers have St. Louis and Seattle -- but the Saints really seem to be finding their way. They get the second seed.
Saints will be second seedI liked the Saints as the second-best team in that conference -- and the NFL -- going into the season-opening tilt between the Packers and New Orleans. Don't see a reason to change now.
Drew Brees is going to shatter Dan Marino's record and Darren Sproles has made them a dominant screen team as well. The offensive line has settled down. We all know New Orleans can score in bunches. Quietly the defense has been much better the past month or so as well. Getting Jon Vilma back was huge and new parts have settled into the defensive line. They are better against the run and playing with some swagger as well.
The 49ers are not a diverse offensive team. I don't believe their quarterback can win them games and next week against Pittsburgh will be a tough challenge. After losing at Seattle last year, I figure the Saints push pretty hard for the second seed and all that comes with it.
Niners will eke out the No. 2 seedThe Saints should â- should -- go 3-0. Look at their next three: at Minnesota (with Peterson and Ponder banged up, the Vikes donât cut an imposing figure); home vs. Atlanta (a good-not-great Falcons team will get exposed here); home vs. Carolina (better luck next year, Cam).
The Niners have a gimme at St. Louis in Week 17, but have two tough ones in the meantime. Next Monday night, they host the Steelers. Scary ... except that Pittsburgh will probably be without Ben Roethlisberger, their best o-lineman in Maurkice Pouncey, and might be missing one of their best defenders in James Harrison (stay tuned). San Francisco will win that game â- final score: 3-2. That means the NFCâs No. 2 seed comes down to what happens when the Niners visit Seattle, which has rounded into a halfway decent team of late. I say Harbaugh survives that deal against Carroll -â and gets the bye.
Saints should cruise, but don't count out NinersWhen it's all said and done, I expect the Saints to claim the NFC South and the No. 2 seed in the NFC behind Green Bay. The schedule is favorable for the Saints, with two of their final three at home. But they will have to earn it. San Francisco's "Fighting Harbaughs" are more than capable of winning three straight, including two on the road, to finish the year.
Saints need to play at SuperdomeI have questions about the Saints on the road in the playoffs. The Saints offense just isn't the same away from the Superdome -- but their only remaining regular-season road game is in Minnesota. I think New Orleans will win their three remaining games and will be the No. 2 seed and the Niners will be the No. 3.