If you happen to be Catholic, this Sunday marks the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem. For the San Francisco 49ers, the feast will be postponed until next Saturday, when the New Orleans Saints arrive in town.
Contrary to Peter King in this week's Sports Illustrated, I'm picking the Niners. To get to San Francisco's Candlestick Park next week, the Saints naturally will have to defeat the Detroit Lions this Saturday. I'll skip all the Roman-Coliseum-era Lions-vs.-Saints jokes, because I'm in agreement with Mr. King about the first round: The Saints will have little trouble beating the Lions.
But in San Francisco, the road will come to an end for Drew Brees and his compatriots. Any team that gives up five yards per carry, as the Saints do, is playing right into the 49ers' offensive strength. During this bye week for the 49ers, running back Frank Gore must be licking his lips in anticipation of blasting through New Orleans' porous defensive line.
And every time he hits the middle for a good-sized chunk of yardage, he'll make the defense cheat in a bit, exposing the corners to the 49ers' short passing game. The Saints are 15th in the league in passing defense, yielding an average of 259.8 yards per game. Given the 49ers' propensity for good field position, an average day by the Saints' pass defenders should translate into scores by San Francisco.
Not that those scores will come from a pile of touchdowns. But assuming the 49ers can penetrate a few times to the Saints' 30-yard line, look for David Akers to do what he usually does--boot the ball through for a near-automatic three points.
Beyond offense, however, this will be a day when the 49ers defense will find out if it's as good as advertised. The Saints lead the league in total offense and passing yardage, and rank fourth in rushing average at 4.9 yards per carry.
Look for the 49ers to control the Saints' running attack, especially with a rested Patrick Willis at linebacker. But when that happens, look also for Brees to test the Niners' secondary.
Pro Bowl defenders Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson will have their hands full with tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston. The 6'7" Graham racked up 99 receptions in the regular season, with 1,310 yards (second among tight ends to Ron Gronkowski of the New England Patriots) and 11 touchdowns. Colston, meanwhile, accumulated 1,143 yards and eight scores.
The Niners have been adequate against the pass this season. But they have also shown vulnerability against big-play receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals. One missed step and Graham or Colston could be streaking toward the end zone.
The intangibles will be fans, weather and field conditions at Candlestick Park. The Saints played only five games outdoors this season, with a record of 3-2 (wins against Jacksonville, Carolina and Tennessee, and losses at Green Bay and Tampa Bay).
As Mr. King points out, many of the Saints, including Brees (who played for Purdue), have cold-weather experience. But, clearly, this is a team that prefers the great indoors.
On the other hand, it's been downright comfortable in the Bay Area for the last couple of weeks. Fog and gusting winds have been absent. Today's high in San Francisco was 61 degrees. If the trends continue, you can probably cross out weather and mud as conditions that either team must deal with.
Which leaves fans. Here again, the Saints will be outside the perpetual noise machine called the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Niners fans may not be as overwhelming as those in New Orleans or Seattle, but they can put up a good ruckus, as they did when the Pittsburgh Steelers came to town.
Brees is a seasoned pro, accustomed to hostile venues. But the Niners fans will make it as hard for him as they can, and his offensive line may have trouble hearing the snap count in critical situations.
This one won't be a shutout, but it won't be a shootout, either. The Saints will get their scores, and the 49ers will eke out just enough offense to prevail.
My prediction: Three Akers field goals and a 23-21 San Francisco victory.
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