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Saints and 49ers: Throwing the Stats Away

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling the puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

- Coldplay

What in the holy hell has been going on this week? Has anyone else noticed it? Stats are flying left and right. Everyone and their mother has got the key to victory for their team in the Saints vs. 49ers Divisional matchup and the freakin' numbers to back it up. More so than any other game. Most of it seems to revolve around the clash between the NFC's best defense and the NFL's number one offense. My hypothesis is that everyone is just so anxious and intrigued, they're desperate to find any advantage their dog might have in this Saturday's fight.

And I'm no different. Hell, I'm a blogger; it's, like, in my DNA. So I pored over all the numbers assuming I would be the one to find the ultimate chink in San Fran's armor that would guarantee victory for the Saints; the Holy Grail of stats that would make even Niners fans throw their hands up in defeat before the game had even taken place.

But there really wasn't much. As it turns out the Saints are a pretty good team, and so are the Niners. Go figure.

Actually, I did find one or two peculiarities that might possibly have a small amount of significance in tomorrow's showdown. I liked the direction MtnExile was heading with his FanPost, examining whether San Francisco's defensive dominance might be inflated because they benefit from playing in a weak NFC West division.

But his conclusions weren't really enough for me. I had to dig deeper. So I busted out the old TI-86 and directly compared the Niners 2011 season stats against division opponents to those of non-division foes in all the major categories: points for/against, total yards for/against, rushing yards for/against, passing yards for/against and turnovers for/against. As I said earlier, I didn't find much. Except...

Well, there seemed to be a fairly big discrepancy, possibly to the advantage of the Saints, between yards allowed by the Niners defense when playing within the division compared to outside of it. Against division opponents the Niners allowed an average of only 251 yards per game this season. Impressive. In non-division games, however, they allowed significantly more yardage, averaging 342.5 yards give up per game. That's a difference of more than 90 yards when playing outside the NFC West. Sounds like I might be on to something. This could be big!

Hardly. The truth of the matter is that the number is skewed. Because for the most part the 49ers played equally good defense against their non-division opponents as well, save for a few bad games when they gave up more yards than usual to the Eagles (513), Cowboys (472) and perhaps the Giants (395), which inflates that number.

But that's just it. San Francisco's defense isn't perfect. They're capable of getting beat and giving up yardage. They're fairly consistent but have shown weakness. None of the opponents listed above have anywhere near as dynamic an offense as New Orleans, so if the Eagles and Cowboys can put up that kind of yardage against San Francisco, then you better believe The Record Breakers are capable of even more damage. Because save the debacle in St. Louis, the Saints have been consistently dominant on offense. Week in and week out. Even outdoors the Saints were still able to put up 503 yards in Jacksonville, 453 in Tampa Bay and 437 in Tennessee.

Bam! Suck on that Niners fans! You can start thinking about the draft because this game is all but over! No arguing with those numbers.

Then again, the Saints have been known to completely meltdown against unlikely and inferior opponents. For example, they're embarrassing loss to the win-less Rams earlier this year and that season-ending dumpster fire they put together against the Seahawks in the playoffs, among a handful of other epic fusterclucks.

But wait, the Saints defense is fifth best in the league at stopping 3rd down and San Francisco's offense is second worst in 3rd down conversion percentage. Jackpot! I hope Harbaugh is emphasizing special teams this week because this baby is gonna be a punt & field goal fest for the 49ers, which just isn't going to get it done against this high-flying Saints offense.

And round and round we go. So basically what you need to know about this that anything can happen. Damn if it isn't cliche but sometimes numbers and stats don't mean a thing. They're certainly fun to break down and examine but in the end it really comes down to which team wants it more on that day. And therein lies the most important stat of all: desire. And that just can't be measured. So let's all just sit back and enjoy the show. May the best team win.

P.S. - The Niners have only turned the ball over once in division games this season but have done so nine times against non-division opponents. FTW! #wegotthis