There's more than one way to skin a cat. Both the Saints and Niners reached thirteen wins employing contradictory strategies. The Saints are known for their record breaking passing attack, while San Francisco is more "old school" with their ground and pound ball control strategy. The Saints have a bend but don't break defense that gives up plenty of yards, while the Niners have a "we'll break you" defense that takes the ball away. The Saints always seem to find themselves in shootouts, winning in spite of a -3 turnover ratio; on the other hand, the Niners come out ahead in defensive battles while enjoying a +28 turnover ratio.
While the strategies look to be diametrically opposed, the two teams share one common trait that stands out above all others: their offenses and defenses complement each other. The Saints have the offense needed to enable their defense to have success, while the Niners defense facilitates their offense with extra possessions while keeping the score within reach.
San Fran isn't known for the vertical pass - Alex Smith averages 183 yards per game on 28 attempts. Yet he's protecting the ball, only throwing 5 interceptions all year - one every 90 attempts (Drew throws an interception for every 47 attempts). As an offense, the Niners haven't turned the ball over in the last five games of the season. They're patient; they can afford to be because though they only convert on 29% of their 3rd downs, they enjoy the best turnover margin in the NFL.
Do you find it surprising that the Niners have 13 wins despite not even averaging 200 passing yards per game? Well, here's another surprise: the Saints run the ball better than the Niners do. That's right - they enjoy more yards per game and more yards per carry while running the ball less. The Saints are more successful than a team whom most people think "live and die" by the run. In addition, the Saints offense gains over 10 points and 150 yards more PER GAME than does the Niners offense.
Look at it another way: despite having a -3 turnover ratio, the Saints outscore their opponents by an average of 13 points per game. With a +28 turnover ratio, the 49'ers only score 9 points more than their opponents, and that total is still 10 points less than what the Saints average. San Francisco's offense is only better than the Rams, Seahawks, Colts, Jaguars, Browns, and Chiefs. If you are paying attention, San Francisco's pitiful offense is in the same division as two of the 5 worst offenses in the NFL. When it is said like that, their defense doesn't look that great. The fact is that "awesome" Niners defense only gives up 60 yards less per game than does the Saints "porous" defense. As for ball control, the 49ers only possess the ball 9 seconds longer than the Saints each game.
One more thing before we leave the numbers alone and talk about match-ups. For all the cockamamie "Saints struggle on the road" believers, consider this: the Saints are an NFL best 18-6 on the road over the last three years. I bet if you looked up the record over the last six years since Sean Payton took the helm, they'd probably be top 5 as a road team in that span.
When it comes to matchups, San Francisco doesn't scare me one bit. The Saints offensive line allows the passing and rushing attack to harmonize. They've faced the big bad Giants and Lions defensive fronts and dominated. What would lead you to believe this won't be the case against San Fran? The Saints have the more versatile and successful RB group, WR group, and the better TE and QB. Who would you choose - the targets Drew Brees enjoys or the Niner coverage unit? It's not even close.
The Niners offense doesn't scare me one bit, and neither does their defense. Yes, they have two LB's playing out of their minds in Willis and Bowman. Aldon and Justin Smith are looking like brothers from another mother, and the front 7 in general is playing at a top level. Their best quality is that the first guy always seems to make the tackle. So what does that mean? It means the Saints and Drew Brees will have to be patient in the early going. It means the Saints offensive line will have to continue to bring the wood and rise up to the challenge. It means the Saints will have a golden opportunity of throwing a haymaker when they lull the Niners to sleep with the nickel and dime body punches.
The Niners remind me of Atlanta. They have explosive targets in the passing game, but their QB is too inaccurate and inconsistent to put the game on his shoulders. Translation: they depend on the run game, and if they have to throw too much they lose. They take their time getting the snap off and try to shorten the game as much as possible. The defense is stout. They don't allow yards after contact, they get pressure, and they get turnovers. With that said, the ONLY thing that scares me about this game is that it is the first play-off game for many of the Niners players, including building blocks such as Gore and Willis. It is the first home playoff game in a very long time, and the atmosphere will be crunk. The Saints don't need to start fast, but it would sure go a long way in securing a victory.
The Saints have scored over 40 points the past 4 consecutive weeks. The Saints have shattered just about every offensive record you can look up. They're riding a 9 game winning streak and have looked dominant with balance where it counts. There's been so much talk about the 49ers run defense, but most forget to mention New Orleans two All-Pro Guards. San Fran will be concerned with stopping Daren "Mighty Mouse" Sproles and Jimmy "Graham Reaper." They'll be concerned with stopping Drew Brees. I think the Saints will be able to run the ball well - well enough to convert on 3rd down and well enough to out rush San Francisco.
Last week, the Lions gave up the run easily, because they were too concerned with limiting Drew. Pete Carmichael doesn't have "the fever;" he'll call running plays when the defense is preoccupied or even when they are expected, and he'll distribute the touches amongst every back. He does enough to break tendencies, letting his offensive line get in rhythm while making the defense hesitate. Everyone knows Drew Brees is a walking MVP, but the Saints ability to run makes converting 3rd downs a Brees. It keeps the opposition off balance and forces them to pick their poison. Against Detroit, the difference in the game was the Saints ability to convert on 3rd down. Well, that will be the biggest difference in this game too.
I think the machine known as the "Gulf Coast Offense" will win this game by a large margin. I'm not sold on San Francisco. I respect how they play sound football, making tackles and stopping YAC, not turning the ball over, and controlling the clock. Yet I can't help but look at who they've played against, and more importantly, WHEN those games were played. It's about timing. You see, the Niners beat the Steelers, but it was when Big Ben was a statue playing on one leg. They beat Detroit when Stafford had a bo-bo on his finger and his RB had a concussion. They beat the Giants while the G-men had half their defense and RB's on the sideline with injury. Their division stinks this year, and helped them to an inflated record. Remember that 9 game winning streak we talked about? That's what I mean about timing.
Will the Niners defense put up a spirited fight? Sure, but it won't be enough. It won't be near enough. Go ahead and wet down the field - hopefully you don't forget to pay the water bill, because in a day game we don't care if you lose electricity. The Saints have TEAM speed, and any field conditions that will affect speed also would affect San Fran's pass rush. Give Drew Brees more time and he won't have to nickle and dime you. I believe the Saints will embarrass San Francisco. Alex Smith won't keep up with Drew Brees, and the Niners will be forced to abandon ball control if they want to win. It will get ugly for Smith, as I look for the Saints to put up 40 for the 5th consecutive week in a 41 to 27 victory.
1st. Saints - 34.2 Points per game, 467 yards per game, 6.7 yards per play, 57% 3rd down conversion, 31:59 time of possession, -3 turnover margin
26. Niners - 23.8 PPG, 311 YPG, 5.0 YPP, 29% on 3rd down, 32:08 TOP, +28 TO margin
1st. Saints - 334 YPG, 8.3 yards per attempt, 71.3% completion, 46 TDs, 14 INTs, (69) 20+ yard completions, 24 sacks allowed, 110.5 QB rating
29. Niners - 183 YPG, 7.1 YPA, 61.4% completion, 18 TDs, 5 INTs, (41) 20+ yard completions, 44 sacks given up, 91.4 QB rating
6. Saints - 133 YPG, 4.9 yards per carry, 16 TDs, 3 fumbles, (14) 20+ yard runs
8. Niners - 128 YPG, 4.1 YPC, 14 TDs, 5 fumbles, (16) 20+ yard runs
4. Niners - 14.3 PPG, 308 YPG, 5.1 YPP, 35% 3rd downs allowed, 31 FF, 15 FR
24. Saints - 21.2 PPG, 368 YPG, 5.8 YPP, 33% on 3rd down, 20 FF, 7 FR
16. Niners - 231 YPG, 6.9 YPA, 57.5% completion, 20 TDs, 23 INTs, (48) 20+ yard completions, 42 sacks, 73.6 opposing QB rating
30. Saints - 260 YPG, 7.0 YPA, 57.8% completion, 24 TDs, 9 INTs, (44) 20+ yard completions, 33 sacks, 86.4 opposing QB rating
1st. Niners - 77 YPG, 3.5 YPC, 3 TDs, 10 fumble recoveries, (4) 20+ yard runs allowed
12. Saints - 108 YPG, 5.0 YPC, 11 TDs, 7 FR, (14) 20+ yard runs allowed
Overall Statistical Comparison: Without rehashing everything we just discussed above, it should be noted that the Saints have a better rushing offense, passing offense, 3rd down offense, explosive play offense...well, you get the point. The Niners have a scary rush defense, but they've not played a team that is balanced. The Niners have created so many turnovers, but who were they coming against and when? Many say New Orleans should worry about the Niners pass rush. I say San Francisco's quarterback will go down more.