Look for more of of the same on Saturday.
The pivotal matchups, advantages vs. disadvantages and keys to victory in the divisional playoff game between the 49ers and Saints have been well documented throughout this week.
And rightfully so.
Predictions will also abound on this particular Friday before the game on Saturday.
Again—certainly for good reason.
Will most sports writers’ predictions call for the Saints emerging victorious? Absolutely.
But how many will make that, oh, audacious pick of the Niners? Far fewer, to be sure. (Excluding the homer population.)
Note: This is not a mere “keys to victory” piece. While it does highlight them, it makes the prediction—including the final score—and is not satisfied with hypothetical “what ifs.”
Here’s how it goes down.
Best special teams unit in the NFL.
Quick fun fact: the Niners enjoy the best average starting field position and their opponents experience nearly the worst.
Punter Andy Lee set an all-time NFL record with 44.0 yards in net average—earning first team All-Pro honors in the process. He put 28 punts inside the 20-yard line and his coverage unit didn’t surrender a punt return TD all season.
That Blake Costanzo-led unit will contain Darren Sproles, who is averaging 10.1 yards per return and has returned one for a touchdown.
Fellow first team All-Pro and record-setting kicker David Akers converted 44 FGs and totaled 166 points.
His booming kicks forced 47 touchbacks, good for a top-five ranking in the NFL. The cold, heavy air and notorious swirling winds at the 'Stick make his statistics all the more impressive.
And his unit did not allow a single returner to reach the end zone. Sorry once again, Mr. Sproles.
Look for the inspirational Akers success story to put the ceremonial icing on the cake with a late fourth- quarter field goal.
Special teams coordinator Brad Seely deserves an honorary MVP.
Gore will be waving that SF flag one more time come Saturday.
Now let’s turn our attention to Frank Gore—the pertinacious, indefatigable, ironclad 49ers running back. (Stephen A. Smith came over for dinner last night. He’s simply contagious).
The fundamental key to keeping Drew Brees and any elite quarterback off the field is a running game that creates long, sustaining drives.
And enhanced by a takeaway-happy defense. (We’ll address that later.)
Gore will operate like the proverbial man possessed.
He has bided his time the last five games and is poised to erupt for his first 100-plus-yard performance since week nine. He will do so on the biggest stage of his career—his first NFL postseason game.
Expect Gore to provide elite pass protection and pound away 20 to 25 times at the Saints porous rushing defense that allows five yards per carry, despite whatever Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman might say to the contrary before the game.
Expect Gore and his fellow clock-eaters Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon to do just that—run out the clock up until Akers’ field goal at the end.
Also, book the rushing trifecta slamming one into the end zone for six of the team’s final winning point total.
The swarming Niners defense in action.
Through the past four games, the Drew Brees-led offense has posted—for lack of more sophisticated vocabulary—stupid good numbers.
The man himself has averaged 394 yards passing, 4 TDs, a completion percentage of 73.9, a QB rating of 130.2 and has thrown only three interceptions. Referring back to the title of the slide, the team has averaged 44 points in that span.
The rushing attack, led by Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, has averaged 175 yards and produced seven TDs.
How do the Niners propose to stop this onslaught?
Simple answer: With the best defense the Saints have faced this season.
During their past four games, each Saints opponent has ranked in the bottom 16 in scoring defense.
Enter the punishing 49ers.
Vic Fangio’s boys rank No. 4 overall—along with the NFL’s No.1 rushing defense and No. 2 scoring defense (by a wee 0.1 points per game). They have not allowed a rushing TD at home all year (NFL record three overall) and a mere 10.8 points per game at Candlestick Park.
The combination of linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner will eliminate the x-factor Sproles and his dangerous maneuvering in space.
Their physicality and sideline-to-sideline coverage abilities will also reduce the impact of mega-beast tight end Jimmie Graham.
Moreover, rookie LB Aldon Smith will showcase his Pro Bowl-deserving credentials to a national television audience. He will even match his pass-rushing abilities (14 sacks) with success in coverage assignments and in stopping the run.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the 49ers NFL-leading 38 takeaways.
Brees will get his 300 yards passing and three TDs. But like Big Ben for the Steelers, he will accrue that yardage before the red zone, throw at least two picks and be sacked twice by the menacing Niners front seven.
His final TD will arrive too little, too late in mop-up time.
And don’t expect Sproles and his fellow RBs to even sniff the goal line. Do expect them to contribute to the home team’s 15 fumble recoveries, though.
Harbaugh and Smith developing a winning game plan.
Is it preposterous to think that Alex Smith will have a more effective game than Drew Brees?
Seven to nine out of 10 times—absolutely yes.
As for the January 14, 2012 game this upcoming Saturday—count on it.
Smith will capitalize on his Jim Harbaugh-generated resurrection as a viable—and winning—NFL quarterback.
He will realize his potential for quarterbacking efficiency with a line score of 16-25 for 202 yards and two TDs. Or thereabouts.
He will generate a performance in line with the ones that contributed to the 49ers league-leading plus-28 turnover margin. The Saints, meanwhile, forced only 16 turnovers this season, ranking 31st in the NFL.
Smith will be confident. He will make it count when it matters most—even more than Drew Brees.
All due respect to the Super Bowl-winning head coach-quarterback tandem of Sean Payton and Brees, but Harbaugh wouldn’t have it any other way.
Final score: 49ers 27, Saints 21.