Although the San Francisco 49ers had an impressive five players named to the NFL All Pro team, there is a good chance they will enter Saturday's game as a slight underdog against the New Orleans Saints. Although the Saints have struggled on the road, their offense is absolutely unstoppable. However, it is important to not underestimate a rested San Francisco team and the coaching ability of Jim Harbaugh in his playoff debut. Here are the keys for the 49ers to win.
The 49ers must control the ball. By keeping Drew Brees off the field as much as possible, San Francisco will look to control the tempo of the game. Frank Gore may not be the fastest running back in the NFL, but very few are as effective in grinding a defense down and moving the chains. Teams can run on the New Orleans defense. If the 49ers are going to win, Frank Gore will need to eclipse 100 yards.
Two of the five All Pro selections came from the 49ers special teams unit. Kicker David Akers has been outstanding this year, accounting for 166 points. Punter Andy Lee has also had another great year. If the 49ers can control field position and benefit from the return game of Ted Ginn Jr., San Francisco will increase their chances of coming out on top.
Give Dree Brees enough time and he will inevitably tear a defense apart. The Saints have an incredible interior line, anchored by Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. Fortunately, the high-motor Justin Smith and athletic rookie Aldon Smith can apply pressure. Because New Orleans has such a great guard combo, Aldon Smith will need to have another outstanding game as an edge rusher to take Drew Brees out of his comfort zone.
In last night's Wild Card game, the Lions stayed in the game in the first half against the Saints largely because of the turnovers they forced. Drew Brees threw one pass deep in Detroit territory that should have been intercepted. For the 49ers to have any chance of winning, the defense will need to force at least one or two turnovers. San Francisco will rely on their star players, such as Patrick Willis and Dashon Goldson, to make big plays.
With a dominant running game and a stout defense, San Francisco has not asked much of Alex Smith this season. To his credit, Smith has greatly improved his decision-making, as noted by only throwing five interceptions this season. If Smith can convert a few key third downs and manage the game, the 49ers can beat the Saints.