What if the NFL scheduled a modern-day version of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and nobody paid any attention to it in the week leading up to the event?
While the national sports media maintains its vigil for the next Tim Tebow miracle, armchair sports psychologists analyze the high-school locker-room antics of the New York Jets and way-too-early NFL draft pundits try to determine whether or not the Colts will draft Andrew Luck, there is a big game to be played in Candlestick Park this Saturday.
A HUGE game. Perhaps the greatest match-up of the entire postseason up to and including this year's Superbowl. It might just even be the game that determines which team will represent the NFC in the Superbowl, yet, no one seems to be paying much attention to it.
Given the season-long focus on the Packers' near-perfect season as they strive to repeat as Superbowl champions and Tim Tebow's continued miraculous exploits, perhaps this should come as no surprise to any of us.
The "No Respect" 49ers
Despite finishing 13-3 and earning the number two overall seed in the playoffs, the 49ers still garner little, if any, respect.
In their big win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football, the media seemed more interested in the two blackouts that occurred before and during the game than the lights-out performance by the 49ers' defense.
In post-game analyses the next day, most spoke of how Pittsburgh's quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was too banged up to make it much of a contest. Critics of the 49ers will point out the shortcomings of their quarterback Alex Smith and their inefficiency in the red zone with respect to scoring touchdowns.
Others will say the 49ers didn't really play anybody that tough this year or, worse yet, will stoop to the now-stale argument that the NFC West is weak.
The truth of the matter is: The 49ers are a dominant football team and played almost as close to perfection as the Green Bay Packers this season.
Take away a 27-24 overtime loss to the Cowboys in week two and a week twelve 21-19 hangover loss to the previously red-hot Arizona Cardinals (after clinching the NFC West title the week before), and you will find that the only meaningful loss the 49ers suffered in the regular season was their 16-6 defeat at the hands of the Ravens in Baltimore on Thanksgiving Day.
That loss came on the road, in Baltimore, after only three days of rest from their game the preceding Sunday.
The "Hey! What About Us" Saints
Having won the Superbowl in 2009, the New Orleans Saints justifiably warrant more respect than their recently revitalized 49ers opponents, but they have been overshadowed all season long by the Green Bay Packers and the Tim Tebow story.
Consider this: Despite setting the all-time single-season passing record in 2011, Drew Brees will likely come up short when it comes to the awarding of the MVP of the NFL this season.
Like the 49ers, the Saints finished 13-3 in the regular season, are the number three seed overall and have already defeated the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
They have scored 45 points in their last three games and appear unstoppable, but they are now about to face what is arguably one of the toughest defenses in the NFL on the road in San Francisco.
Some are even referring to the game as "the unstoppable force versus the immovable object," saying that "something will have to give" this Saturday before jumping back to the ad nauseam discussions of Tim Tebow. So much for a pre-game analysis of the Saints vs. the 49ers.
So why is it that sports TV and radio personalities don't have much to say about the 49ers vs. Saints matchup?
In my opinion, there are three primary reasons this game is being largely ignored.
1. The 49ers are boring TV fare.
No one wants to pick the 49ers to win this game because in this day and age of the NFL's version of "home-run" baseball and "slam-dunk" basketball, the 49ers are simply a boring football team to watch.
Nothing ever happens too exciting. They just win as a team week in and week out. Watching the 49ers play is kind of like watching a bunch of carpenters pound nails into a piece of wood. The nails get pounded. Not much to report on is there?
Even the old adage of "defense wins championships" is being questioned of late, with comments such as "the NFL has changed" and "it is a quarterback-dominated league now."
Sports personalities are quick to point out that four of the eight remaining teams in the playoffs—the Saints, Patriots, Packers and Giants—all have dominant quarterbacks and weak pass defenses to back up their claim that it takes a great quarterback to win an NFL championship not defense.
This, of course, feeds into their storylines of who will draft Andrew Luck, etc., etc.
2. Marquee Matchup Fever
In this still-young postseason, sportswriters, sports TV and radio personalities are literally salivating— no, FROTHING at the mouth—at the possibility of a Superbowl matchup involving Aaron Rogers or Drew Brees versus Tom Brady.
And if they can't have two of those three superstar quarterbacks in the Superbowl? No problem. They will gladly take Tim Tebow, who, in their minds, always has a miracle or two in his back pocket. If he doesn't? Well, it will be fun to watch Tebow get his comeuppance, won't it?
You might say that those ignoring this game just want it to be over with a New Orleans Saints victory.That is the best possible script in their minds.
You can almost hear them screaming at the top of their lungs, "Can we PLEASE have a Drew Brees versus Aaron Rogers NFC Championship Game so we can decide the NFL MVP award on the field? If we can't have that, can we PLEASE have the next best thing to Peyton— his little brother Eli—in the NFC Championship Game so we don't have to write about boring Alex Smith?"
3. The Toss Up Dilemma.
Lastly, and in fairness to the sports reporting professionals, this game may just be too close to call, and no one wants to be too quick to pick a winner only to be made to look like a fool when it is all over.
So how does this game break down at a top level?
Let's consider momentum.
The Saints have gathered considerable steam with nine consecutive victories in a row, counting last week's Wild Card playoff win at home.
In contrast, the 49ers, after having won eight games in a row earlier in the season, stumbled and stuttered a bit over their last eight regular season games, losing to the Cardinals and Ravens on the road and barely surviving tough games against divisional opponents Seattle and St. Louis.
Could they have already peaked while the Saints are just peaking?
Let's consider Offense and Defense.
In their last nine games, the Saints have outscored their opposition 332 to 178. They are averaging roughly 37 points per game and are giving up less than 20 to their opponents. That is domination on the field and on the scoreboard.
The 49ers have scored a total of 193 points over their last nine games—averaging about 21.5 points per game—but they have given up only 122 points or 13.2 per game on average.
Nobody runs against the 49ers, and they have proven their ability to slow down and gum up nearly every offense they have faced. Granted, they have not faced the likes of Drew Brees.
However, the Saints averaged less than 26 points per game in away games outdoors against defenses far less worthy than San Francisco. I see the Saints scoring around 24 points, with the 49ers scoring about the same.
Let's consider Coaching.
Sean Payton is an experienced Superbowl champion coach. However, Jim Harbaugh has proven to be a winner wherever he has been, and his first year in the NFL may just make him coach of the year.
Both are passionate men. Both are confident (crazy?) enough to call for onside kicks, go for it on 4th-and-1 in their own territory, fake field goals etc. I would give a slight edge to Payton except for one thing. Harbaugh has had two weeks to game-plan for the Saints.
Saints' Playoff Experience versus 49ers' Home Field
The Saints have "been there before." Experience is not to be discounted, but the 49ers are at home in San Francisco, so the comforts of home will equal any playoff experience advantage the Saints may have.
Crowd noise will make it difficult for Brees to be audible at the line, and anyone who was at the last 49ers' come-from-behind playoff victory over the New York Giants knows how loud San Francisco fans can get if their team is in the game.
The 49ers played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home and defeated them soundly 48-3. The Saints were 1-1 against the Bucs, losing to them on the road 26-20 and beating them at home 27-16.
The Saints played the New York Giants at home and defeated them 49-24. The 49ers played a close game against the Giants and hung on to win 27-20.
The Saints lost to the Rams on the road 31-21. The 49ers defeated the Rams twice by a combined score of 60-27.
The Saints defeated the Lions at home twice by a combined score of 76-45. The 49ers defeated the Lions on the road by a score of 25-19.
Keys to the Game
For the 49ers: Time of Possession.
In all three of the Saints' losses, their opponents won the ball control and time of possession battle. The 49ers are built to do this, with a stout running game and an offense which has not turned the ball over.
If Alex Smith can play error-free and the combination of a well-rested Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter running attack can sustain drives, the 49ers will win in a close game.
For the Saints: Time of Possession.
The longer the Saints have the ball, the more yards and points they will amass,and even the 49ers' stout defense will prove to be vulnerable. The 49ers cannot win a shootout and cannot win a game in which they give the Saints more time to do damage.
San Francisco 49ers 30 and New Orleans Saints 27.
I see this game being very similar to the 1981 NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and the Cowboys. It will be back-and-forth and likely decided on the last possession by either a last-minute score or last-minute defensive stand or turnover.
I see the 49ers hosting the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco. The 49ers will prevail in another hard-fought battle and will face the Baltimore Ravens in the Superbowl for a Harbaugh Bowl rematch.
It is not superstar quarterbacks that win Super Bowls. It is not Defenses that win championships.
It is TEAMS that win championships, and I believe the 49ers—as boring as they might be on TV—are the closest to a complete team in the NFL this season in terms of offense, defense and special Teams.
This will be the game you won't want to miss. This one will be memorable.