After last week's 49-17 annihilation of the Dallas Cowboys, the New Orleans Saints looked to sustain the trend against the San Francisco 49ers. Respect was on the line, as well as playoff positioning, as the 49ers had beaten the Saints two times in a row—including a thrilling 2011 playoff tilt.
Coming into the season, most felt as though the 49ers were possibly the prohibitive favorites to grab a top seed in the NFC Conference. That distinction now belongs to the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have yet to lose inside of the conference, and the 23-20 victory over the 49ers sends a message of complete authenticity to the rest of the league.
One of the biggest tests of the season answers a lot of questions, but it raises a ton of them as well.
Here are my takeaways.
If the victory over the Cowboys was of any indication, the Saints most certainly have the personnel to be one of the most balanced teams in the entire league. For what was once a question has now become a statement as the Saints virtually had a repeat performance against San Francisco.
Now let's not go overboard; this performance wasn't as dominant as the one against Dallas—as the 49ers are a much better team defensively. But when you pile up close to 400 yards of offense (305 passing, 92 rushing), on a defense of this magnitude, the excuses for one-dimensional play go out the window.
A 92-yard rushing performance is nothing to phone home about—for most of the elite teams—but the mere thought of the Saints generating close to 100 yards (on 22 designed runs) against the fifth-ranked rushing defense would've been met with laughter just three weeks ago.
It's not as if the Saints don't have the personnel to employ a physical attack; it's only a matter if they want to.
If the Saints operate with balance for the duration of the season, it may very well culminate in a Super Bowl victory, as there's not a defense that can deal with a balanced Saints offense.
For the Saints to truly have a chance to advance in the playoffs they must be able to stop run.
Coming into the game, the 49ers were the fifth-ranked rushing outfit in the NFL. Generating 81 yards on 22 carries certainly won't help that ranking. In what may be the finest defensive effort of the season, the Saints defense rendered the 49ers' rushing attack ineffective for the most part.
The 3.7 yards-per-carry average the Saints gave up was far below the 5.0 season average. The Saints went with tighter line splits and varying personnel groupings to get the very best out of the run defense.
But it was the run fits and the gap integrity that played the biggest part in this masterful display of defense.
This aspect of the defense shows up just in time for both the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks. This has to make fans of the Black and Gold feel even more comfortable ahead of those pivotal matchups.
Many pundits have predicted that the conventional passer may be a thing of the past as the new generation has ushered in a breed of athletic quarterback. A meeting between Saints QB Drew Brees and 49ers signal-caller Colin Kaepernick exemplifies that exact scenario.
Kaepernick received high praise from respected ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski prior to the season after only 10 starts. Thus far in his second season starting, to say Kaepernick has a long way to go would be an understatement.
Against the vaunted Saints defense Kaepernick looked rather pedestrian. His 17-of-31, 127-yard performance (two touchdowns) looks better on paper than it actually was—and it looks average on paper!
Kaepernick struggled to make the anticipatory throw and couldn't generate a throw longer than 17 yards. His rushing (three attempts for 25 yards) wasn't a major factor in the outcome either.
Conversely, Brees did what Brees does (30-of-43, 305 yards, one TD and one INT) and controlled the 49ers defense.
As matter of speculation, he had mind control over San Francisco not unlike the character Smokey had over Debo in the movie Friday.
The conventional passer will always be prevalent in football because no matter how great a QB can move, the ball will always travel faster when it's thrown...
49ers tight end Vernon Davis has been a thorn in the side of the Saints for his entire career. His late touchdown against the Saints in the 2011 playoffs will go down in 49ers' history, in addition to his seven-catch, 180-yard performance (two TDs) in last season's subsequent meeting.
After a four-catch, 33-yard performance in this game, it's safe to say that the Saints' version of the Boogeyman will have to wait until the next matchup to inflict pain and agony on the Saints and their fans alike.
Davis was able to break loose for a 17-yard TD, but it was clear that Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was going to force anyone but Davis to beat them. Davis was doubled quite a few times, which in turn forced action elsewhere. The only problem was there really wasn't anyone else to take the reins.
This is just another aspect for teams to think about when facing the Saints. We've seen the Saints take away No. 1 threats on numerous occasions this season.
Think Dez Bryant in the Cowboys game. This will be huge moving forward.
FB Jed Collins
In basketball, it's a known premonition that role players often show up most in home games, with the thought being that familiarity and comfort allows for players of lesser talent to function more proficiently.
The same can be said for the NFL—if not more so. Reserve tight end Josh Hill was the first player to score a TD, and fullback Jed Collins achieved his first rushing TD of the season as well. In addition, receiver Robert Meachem had one his finest outings of the season with a two-catch 78-yard performance (on two targets).
Defensively, corner Chris Carr was very effective stepping in for an injured Jabari Greer on a rotational basis.
Developing depth will be critical as the season wears on. Having players step up in big game goes a long way in doing just that.
Everything done now is in regard to the playoffs.
As great as this win was, it was marred by a myriad of self-inflicted mistakes. A muffed punt by Lance Moore, a fumble (for a touchback) by Corey White on an interception return and a careless interception by Brees all caused this game to be much tougher than it really needed to be.
Without those mistakes, this may have been a blowout for the Saints. If you factor in four more penalties for various reasons, you really get the full picture.
These penalties allowed the 49ers to actually believe they had a chance to win this game. Theoretically, they did almost win the game. This is something that could come back to haunt the Saints if they see the 49ers in the playoffs.
When you can take a team the caliber of San Francisco and completely run them out the gym, it reverberates from San Francisco to Russia!
Instead, most will look at the final score and see that the Saints needed a field goal as time expired to pull it off at home.
Anyone watching this game knows that the 49ers aren't in the same stratosphere as the Saints, but the results say otherwise.
It seems as though New Orleans' toughest opponent is itself.
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