The New Orleans Saints have just completed an onslaught of the Detroit Lions in their wild-card matchup at home. They will travel across the country in a week's time to face the San Francisco 49ers on their home turf at Candlestick Park.
Although the Saints victory against the Lions was complete and utterly convincing, the 49ers pose a grave threat to the Saints' title hopes. Let me tell you why.
The first thing right off the bat that the Saints will have to deal with next week is simply that they will be playing outdoors on the road. All three games the Saints lost in 2011 were road games.
More importantly, the Saints will be facing a far superior team next week in the 49ers.
The Lions are a team that lives and dies on big plays in the passing game. They also possess a defense that is average, at best.
The 49ers, on the other hand, are a team that relies on all three phases of the game working in concert for their success. They have one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL, and they have had an entire week off to rest up and rejuvenate their aching bodies and weary minds.
The Lions are incredibly undisciplined on defense, whereas the 49ers are one of the most disciplined units in the league. They rarely have anyone out of position on defense, which is why they make so many plays.
The Saints rely on mismatches in the passing game to make their hay. Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham and the stable of receivers are adept at creating mismatches on opposing defenses that Drew Brees masterfully exploits with his accurate arm.
The 49ers have the personnel to even the odds a bit, though. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are athletic and fast enough to keep up with any running back or tight end. Willis has been known to cover tight ends one-on-one like a cornerback, allowing the rest of the back end an extra man to defend the wide receivers.
In addition to their exceptional linebackers, the 49ers routinely get intense pressure on opposing quarterbacks using only four rushers, either in their base 3-4 package or in their nickel package.
Rookie defensive end and favorite to win the defensive ROY award Aldon Smith is a terror as a down lineman in that nickel package, and he and Justin Smith work well together, disrupting the timing and comfort of their opponent.
The back end of the 49ers defense has vastly improved this year, as well. Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers were signed as free agents in the offseason, and both have provided a lift for the team. Dashon Goldson is having a career year, and both he and Rogers lead the 49ers with six interceptions each.
In addition to the 49ers stifling defense, they possess an underrated offense that many people mistake as a bad offense due to their focus.
The 49ers rely on an approach that is foreign to most fans of the NFL these days. Instead of running a pass-happy offense, the 49ers are one of the most balanced offenses in the league in terms of their run/pass ratio.
Frank Gore and rookie Kendall Hunter will be counted on to control the clock and to pound away at the middle of the Saints defense, opening up lanes over the top and on the outsides for play-action passes.
Alex Smith has been hitting his stride lately, as well, and he and Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis have been developing the kind of chemistry fans have been dreaming about for years.
So, although the Saints are fresh off an impressive victory at home, their next challenge will test them to their limit.
I expect the 49ers defense to handle Brees and the Saints offense, and I expect the 49ers offense to control the clock and win the turnover battle, winning the same way they have been doing it all year long.