First-year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh performed a miracle turning around the 49ers after a nine-year Playoff drought and he’s dying to show their 13-3 record wasn’t a fluke.  After re-writing the NFL Record Book this season and winning their last eight regular-season games, the 14-3 Saints aren’t content to rest on their pitchfork, seeking a second Super Bowl in three years.  To get there, the Saints must win their first Playoff road game in franchise history against the 49ers in what's guaranteed to be a DOGFIGHT. 

After growing up despising the Saints’ former NFC West nemesis, as much as it pains me to say this, Coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers deserve serious props for their 2011 accomplishments.  Harbaugh’s 13-3 record’s tied for third-most victories by a rookie Head Coach in NFL history. With eight Pro Bowl players, the 49ers tied for the NFL lead.  They led the NFL with a +28 TO and the League’s #1 Run Defense (77.3 YPG.)

Here’s a rundown of the key factors that will determine the outcome today:

Saints’ Offense vs. 49ers Defense.  The juggernaut Saints O that average 34.2 PPG (#2) will no doubt meet their match in the stingy 49er D that give up 14.3 PPG (#2.) On their nine-game winning streak, the Saints scored 42+ points in each of their last four games.  Drew Brees has been on fire in those contests, racking up 17  TDs with only 3 INTs.  Of course the 49ers will come after him, but first have to cross the Saints’ “OLine of Death” that’s tied for the second-fewest sacks (24) after a rocky start early in the season which found Brees under four Centers.  With improved OLine protection, Brees broke his own NFL Single-Season Completion record with 71.2% connecting for 46 TDs (#1) and 5,476 yards that shattered Marino’s ’84 record.  The Saints OLine contains three Pro Bowlers including Carl Nicks and Jahri Evens, the best Guard tandem in the NFL.  If the 49ers’ D has a “weakness,” it’s against the pass which allows 230.9 YPG (16th) against a Saints Passing Game that averages 334.2 YPG (#1.)  The Saints faced the same odd front as 49ers 3-4 Defense twice this season when they played Green Bay and Houston.   If it gave Brees problems, he didn’t show it.  Brees threw for 419 yards and 3 TDs against the Packers and 370 yards and 3 TDs vs. the Texans.

Who Can Run.  One of the best-kept secrets this season is the Saints’ vastly improved rushing attack ranked sixth in the League (132.9 YPG) after finishing 28th in ’10.  The 49ers are #1 against the run and have allowed one rushing TD all season—the fewest in a 16-game season. When the 49ers throw the kitchen sink at Brees—and they will, no doubt—the pass rush will open running lanes for Saint RBs Sproles, Thomas and Ivory.  The Saints “run by committee” with a backfield featuring the versatile Darren Sproles, who just set a new NFL record for most All-Purpose Yards in a Season. By contrast, Frank Gore IS the 49ers rushing game.  Gore, a 1,200+ yard rusher, mugged the Saints for 168 total yards and 2 TDs the last time they met Week 2 in ’10.  Overall, the 49er Rushing Game averages 127.4 YPG (#8.)  Like the 49ers, the Saints’ D’s strong suit is against the run, allowing 108.6 YPG.  Granted, the stout 49er D will prevent the Saints from running up the gut, which means they’ll rely even more on their backs for screen passes—the highest % play in the NFL’s array of Offensive plays. The Saints use the screen pass more than any team in the NFL.  The ground attack’s been critical setting up Brees’ play action on big plays for big yardage.

Turnovers.  With 38 takeaways, the 49ers are tied for first in the NFL while the Saints’ 19 giveaways are tied for fourth-least.  The Saints have vastly improved in this key area in the last five games which have been TO-free.  Bottom line: if the Saints give up the ball to an opportunistic 49er D that amassed 23 INTs in the regular season, we're screwed.   

Alex Smith’s Effectiveness.  The Saints blitz everybody all the time—second in the NFL with 365 this season.  Only six teams’ QBs took more sacks than Alex Smith this season (44), but strangely  Alex Smith's got the third highest QBR against the blitz (96.3) Smith’s held up well against pressure, resulting in 10 giveaways all season.  His 61.4 Comp. %, overall 90.7 QBR, and 3,144 passing yds. are career bests.  In the past, he’s frozen like a deer in the headlights against the Saints, dropping his QBR to 65 while amassing 3 TDs and 5 INTS in three contests.  In the 49ers last four games, Smith has thrown 2 TDs and had only one 200+ yard game.  Smith’s admitted he’s been picking C Jonathon Goodwin’s brain for insider intell from his ’06-’10 stint with the Saints.  Coach Payton said Goodwin doesn’t have any “dark secrets” that aren’t already on film. 

The Reason the Saints Are 3 Point Favorites: Payton-Era Playoff Experience.  Under Coach Payton, the Saints have made seven Playoff appearances in the last six years (5-2) including a win in Super Bowl XLIV.  The 49ers last Playoff showing was January ‘03.  In their last five Playoff games, the Saints averaged 37.6 PPG.  Last week, the Saints set a new NFL postseason record of 626 yards and tied another with 34 1st Downs.  Win or lose, Drew Brees is LETHAL in the postseason.  In seven Playoff games as a Saint, Brees has 16 TDs with just 1 INT in 286 ATTS for a career 67.7 Comp. %—second highest in NFL history behind Aaron Rodgers’ 67.8%.  Last week he became the first player in NFL history with back-to-back 400+-yd. post-season games after he scorched Detroit with 43 passes that extended his postseason streak without an INT to 215 attempts (his last was in ’06.) Only three QBs in NFL history have passed for 400+ yards twice in a post-season game in their career: Brees, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. Yes, he is THAT good. 

Fearless Prediction:  I hope everyone has re-filled their meds.  It’s gonna be CLOSE.  Don't see the Saints serving up any 40-burgers on the 49ers' plates today, unfortunately.  While the myth the Saints can’t win has been thoroughly debunked (See “Road Warriors” article), they’ve squeaked out Dubyas on the road by a low single-digit points (CAR and ATL by three points; TN by five.)  Their five lowest-scoring games this season were on the road, including three outdoors.  Against a slamming 49er D, expect to see the same. On the upside, Harbaugh’s obviously not read the League Memo regarding the structure of a 21st Century NFL team: Get a
Signature QB, provide him with an arsenal of multiple Offensive targets, and then score, score, score while you wear the opponent’s Defense down by keeping them on the field.  The 49ers’ D is Old-School amazing; they’re O, by contrast, is somewhat pedestrian.  They’re best chance of getting points on the board is Gregg Williams’ continuing to hang 3 or 4 defenders to zone cover 40-60 yards of the field.  And if I see us in “Prevent Defense” again in this game, even once, I will campaign to get Del Rio in Williams’ headset next year.  Let’s talk about Sean Payton’s stubbornness, too.  When the ground game’s not working Coach P forces the issue until it does, or doesn’t.  The 49ers have racked up a body count of injured running backs on opposing teams this year; unless we want to relive the Debacle in Seattle in the NFCCG, Payton’s got to fight this war in the Air.  We need just enough rushing attack to make it work.  We can’t go into the locker room at the half down by 10.  Get ahead early, stay ahead often, and hope to see Drew in Victory formation kneeling once or twice at the end.  Saints 28 49ers 20.