49ers vs. Saints: Key Stars Who Will Determine Outcome of NFC Clash

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 27:  Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 27, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Two of the NFC's best teams will collide when the 7-2 New Orleans Saints host the 6-3 San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The question is, which team's stars will prove to be the deciding factor?

Both teams have found help from unexpected sources at times this season. No one would have guessed that the Saints would pound the Dallas Cowboys on the strength of a 145-yard outing for Mark Ingram. Yet, he was a huge factor in their 49-point explosion. Tramaine Brock is far from a household name, but he happens to lead the Niners in interceptions on the season with four so far. 

Unheralded players stepping up when called upon is the hallmark of any good team. But when it comes to a marquee matchup like this one, the stars have to earn their paychecks. Here are the most important ones to watch as the Saints and Niners look to prove their worth in the NFC hierarchy. 

Frank Gore

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 10:  Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the ball against the Carolina Panthers at Candlestick Park on November 10, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Gore has proved to be an ageless wonder this season with 700 yards and seven touchdowns through nine games. Going against the New Orleans Saints and their 23rd ranked rush defense, he'll have the opportunity to add to those numbers. 

The Saints defense has been markedly improved from last season. After giving up 293 yards through the air per game last year, they are giving up just 199 passing yards per game this season. 

The defense still remains susceptible to giving up yards one the ground, though. Former Saint Chris Ivory ran for 139 yards on 18 carries in the Saints' second loss of the season, while Stevan Ridley enjoyed a 96-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Saints when the Patriots gave them their first loss. 

Gore has been consistent all season but has had just one 100-yard game. He'll need his second for the Niners to fully exploit the Saints' weaknesses. 

Jimmy Graham

Truth be told, the New Orleans Saints offense needs just one star to play well week in and week out and that's Drew Brees. But Graham is becoming a close second. 

The Saints offense is a revolving door of stars. As Mark Ingram proved last week, Sean Payton isn't afraid to find who has the hot hand and make sure they have the opportunity to make plays. 

However, the Saints loss to the New England Patriots illustrated the importance of Graham for Brees this season. With Graham blanketed by Aqib Talib and subsequently sidelined by injury, Brees went just 17-of-36 for 236 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. 

Graham is currently leading the Saints in yards (805), touchdowns (10) and receptions (54) on the season, and it isn't really close. He's the Saints number one target this season, and he'll need to have a big day to ensure that Brees is rolling against a stout Niners defense. 

Aldon Smith

November 10, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99, center) rushes against Carolina Panthers tackle Nate Chandler (78) and quarterback Cam Newton (1) during the second quarter at Candlestick Park. Mandatory C
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of that stout San Fransisco defense, Aldon Smith will need to play a big role if the Niners are going to throw Brees off of his game on Sunday.

After a long absence away from the team, Smith saw just 12 snaps in Week 10 against the Carolina Panthers, but he figures to see a lot more action in his second game back according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.  

That's great news for Niners' fans. Smith is second on the team with 4.5 sacks on the season despite playing in just four games this season. 

If Smith is able to pick up where he started in the first three games of the season and get himself acquainted with Brees early and often, the Niners will have a good shot at making things interesting in the Superdome. 


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