No game in this weekend's NFL divisional round presents a greater contrast of styles than the strength-on-strength showdown between the high-octane New Orleans Saints and the stingy San Francisco 49ers—a game that will prove New Orleans' strength is a good deal stronger than San Francisco's
Spurred by another virtuoso performance by Drew Brees, the Saints will defeat the 49ers on the road and advance to their second NFC title game in the last three season.
It won't be as easy as it sounds.
A playoff game in San Francisco presents unique challenges for this Saints team.
New Orleans hasn't faced a top-five defense on the road all year, much less outside in the elements. To boot, San Francisco features a ferocious front seven and a first-rated run defense that's well designed to slow New Orleans' sneaky good ground attack.
But with all these things considered, the case for the Saints on Sunday is a simple one: based on recent playoff history and both of the teams' performances this year against top competition, I trust New Orleans' offense more than I trust San Francisco's defense.
Start with their showings against the league's elite this year.
San Francisco faced three offenses rated in the NFL's top 10 in 2011, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York. Good news for 49ers fans, is that their team went 3-0 in those contests.
Dig a bit deeper inside those numbers, though, and there's cause for concern. San Francisco allowed an average of 406 yards per game in those contests and posted an average margin of victory of 4.7 points.
This from a team that allowed 308 yards per game for the season and averaged nearly a 13-point margin of victory in its 13 wins.
Though they managed victories, San Francisco struggled against teams with better offenses.
It's a similar story for San Francisco when they faced elite quarterbacks in 2011. Against passers with top-10 QB ratings, the 49ers went 2-1, with wins against Detroit and Pittsburgh tempered by a loss against Tony Romo's Cowboys.
Matthew Stafford threw for 293 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his team's loss against San Francisco. Tony Romo found similar success, going 20-of-33 with 345 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
San Francisco's only notable success against an elite quarterback was their beatdown of a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, in a game he later admitted he shouldn't have played. While it's nice to acknowledge that the 49ers held Big Ben to zero touchdowns and three interceptions, Roethlisberger still managed 330 yards passing on one leg.
Every top quarterback facing the 49ers moved the ball against their vaunted D, and Drew Brees is better than any signal caller they've seen so far.
But how has Brees fared against the league's best defenses? Glad you asked.
New Orleans faced two defenses ranked in the top 10 this year and went 2-0 in those games. More importantly, their offensive production and efficiency suffered no ill-effects.
In games against the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Saints averaged 478 yards of offense, actually a tad higher than the 467 yards a game they averaged for the season.
It goes to the point that New Orleans dictates terms to the defense they face, and rarely does the skill level on the other side of scrimmage impact their success. The Saints do as the Saints do, and it relates almost exclusively to the internal mechanics of their execution.
In fact, all three of the Saints' losses on the year came to teams ranked 22nd or below in overall defense. If there's a formula for how to beat New Orleans, having a top-notch defense isn't it.
All of this is small-beans analysis, though, compared to the bigger, historical question: How do teams with great offenses fare in playoffs as opposed to teams with great defenses?
Or more apropos of this game, how do teams with great offenses and bad defenses fare in the playoff as opposed to teams with bad offenses and great defenses?
New Orleans finished first in the NFL in offense and 24th in defense during 2011 while San Francisco ranked 26th in offense and fourth in overall defense, so those are the team profiles we'll be seeing this Sunday.
Since the 2005 season, teams who finished in the top five in offense and below average in defense have posted a 14-7 record. The group includes two Super Bowl champions, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.
Over the same period of time, teams who finished in the top five in total defense and featured a below average offense went 9-8 and produced just one Super Bowl champion, the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the old adage about defense winning championships were ever true, it certainly doesn't hold in the modern NFL. It isn't a recipe for disaster, but it also isn't as advantageous as having a top-notch offense.
As the numbers tell it, your offense is more likely to win the game than your defense is to lose it. New Orleans has an offense that can win it the game, and that's why they will.
Any number of straightforward observations supporting the Saints' cause could complement this mountain of data—the Saints are more experienced, they have a Super Bowl winning quarterback, they're the hotter team.
It's good stuff, but ancillary to the case I'm making.
The numbers tell us why, come Saturday, the Saints will win this game. New Orleans is stronger where it matters most and better at dictating their strengths to those teams built to counter them.