The New Orleans Saints looked unstoppable once again last weekend, dropping 45 points and 626 yards on the Detroit Lions and showing that there is no offensive machine quite like theirs. This weekend, however, they face the only team in the NFL with a defense that looks capable of slowing down Brees and Co.: The San Francisco 49ers.
Two different philosophies will collide when these squads meet. The Saints are a new-wave team that runs a wide-open offense -- totally controlled by a quarterback who thinks nothing of throwing 45 times a game -- and a defense that blitzes 50-60 percent of the time. The 49ers are "old school," running a conservative offense built around the rush and featuring fewer than 30 passes per game. San Francisco also relies on a stingy defense that gave up just three rushing touchdowns all year (and none at home).
On paper, home field would appear to be an advantage for the 49ers, but let's break things down on a deeper level by examining three critical questions.
What happens to the Saints' offense on the road?
The New Orleans Saints are the most exciting indoor team in the NFL. They average more than 41 points per game in the Superdome, where they are 9-0 this season. Away from New Orleans, however, they look almost human, with a 5-3 record and a scoring average of just 27 points per game. That means playing in New Orleans is worth two touchdowns per game to the Saints. Historically, they also have a hard time away from the artificial turf: Since Drew Brees became the starting quarterback in 2006, the Saints are 16-14 on grass fields, with Brees averaging just 1.8 touchdown passes per game. Even more alarming for the Saints: They've scored just three rushing touchdowns on grass in that time span.
It might seem that this season was different, with the Saints amassing a 4-1 record on grass fields against the Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans. However, they scored just nine touchdowns, all in the air, and just 13 points per game against those teams, despite their less-than-fearsome defenses.
San Francisco's defense is much better than those New Orleans usually faces away from home. The Saints will likely need points from field goals and their defense to offset the drop in offensive production. Remember, the Saints average just 27 points per game on the road; the 49ers average 28 points per game at home.
Can Alex Smith go shot-for-shot with Brees?
The 49ers can't afford to let Brees go wild and force them to play catch-up. San Francisco doesn't have much experience trying to rally back from a deficit; Alex Smith has attempted just 21 passes all season when losing by more than seven points. Smith also has been sacked a league-high 44 times this year, or one sack every 11 pass plays; in games against Baltimore, Cleveland, and Arizona, Smith was sacked 19 times, or once for every six attempted passes. After blitzing a little more than 50% of the time against Detroit's Matthew Stafford, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will push his pressure packages on Smith in passing situations. Smith is athletic enough to avoid some of the pressure, but Williams will surely have studied the tape on him.
Which team will run the ball more effectively?
Ask the average fan which squad has the better running game, and an overwhelming majority will pick San Francisco. But the Saints have slightly better averages, probably because their passing attack poses such a significant threat to defenses. In the regular season, New Orleans averaged 27 rushing plays per game for 133 yards and scored a total of 16 touchdowns on the ground. Against the Lions, the Saints ran 36 times for 167 yards and three touchdowns. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory can all catch the ball, and the Saints run the same plays with all three guys, making their rushing attack difficult to defend against.
The 49ers, on the other hand, ran the ball 31 times per game in the regular season, but gained slightly fewer yards, averaging 128 per game and finishing with 14 rushing touchdowns. New Orleans gave up 5.0 yards per carry in the regular season, so the Saints don't want to let San Francisco get into a groove on the ground, preferring to build up an early lead and force the 49ers to abandon the run. To see how to attack the Saints successfully, San Francisco should look to the St. Louis Rams' shocking Week 8 upset, in which they ran 31 times for 183 yards and two touchdowns against New Orleans.
The 49ers have had a remarkable season and Jim Harbaugh should be coach of the year for what he accomplished. This will be a lower scoring game than the Saints usually find themselves in, but in the end, New Orleans will pull out the win. Saints 27, 49ers 24.