49ers vs. Saints: What to Watch for When Offense Meets Defense in San Francisco

Baily Deeter@@deetersportsSenior Writer IIIJanuary 14, 2012

Patrick Willis heads out of the tunnel before the Niners dominated the Rams and clinched a playoff berth.
Patrick Willis heads out of the tunnel before the Niners dominated the Rams and clinched a playoff berth.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers and the Saints.

Thirty years ago, back when Joe Montana was around, they were NFC West rivals. The Saints were known for paper bags, and the Niners for Super Bowl titles. But now, things have changed.

San Francisco was still a legit contender in the early part of the new century, but they have since faded off the scene. In his first six years as quarterback, Alex Smith failed to lead the 49ers to the playoffs, although they did come close.

This year, however, everything has clicked for the 49ers.

The run defense didn't allow a touchdown in the first fourteen games of the season. Alex Smith found a rhythm and led the 49ers to a steady amount of points in each game. And the result is a 13-3 season for the Niners and new coach Jim Harbaugh, who has led them back to the playoffs.

As for New Orleans, they turned everything around in 2009. The Saints won their first thirteen games before losing their final three, but everything worked to perfection in the playoffs. Drew Brees and Co. overpowered Arizona, defeated Minnesota in a nail-biter and fended off the Colts in the Super Bowl.

Now, for the first time since 2010, these two meet; a rejuvenated Alex Smith against a powerful Drew Brees. But don't forget the defenses; they have both shined this year.

San Francisco's stellar D paved way for Alex Smith's great year by reducing the amount of points scored against them. Aldon Smith has become a force on the D-line, as he harassed Big Ben and Pittsburgh in a 20-3 win. San Francisco's defense humbled Detroit, New York (Giants) and Cincinnati as well.

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Although we have seen the Saints lay eggs (losses to 2-14 St. Louis, 4-12 Tampa Bay), their defense and offense can be unstoppable when they find a rhythm. New Orleans scored 20-plus points in every game this season, and their defense was able to keep opponents at bay in big situations.

A big reason for that was Darren Sproles, a free-agent pickup from San Diego who may have proved to be the best free-agent acquisition last offseason. Sproles has 87 carries and 86 receptions, with a total of 1,313 yards and nine touchdowns.

However, if we see the best San Francisco's run game has to offer, it shouldn't be a factor for New Orleans. That's why in a game like this, Drew Brees must bring his best to the table.

These two teams competed down to the wire for a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one game. The Niners got it, and they have a huge advantage: New Orleans is 9-0 at home this year, and 5-3 on the road.

San Francisco is 4-1 against playoff teams this year, and New Orleans is 5-1. Both teams have shown their best this year: San Francisco mixing the run with short passes effectively to control the game and pick up Ws, and Drew Brees and the Saints bringing what the opponent doesn't expect to win games.

It's been nine years since San Francisco's been at home this late in the season. New Orleans has never played in the postseason on the road. Either Smith or Brees, Gore or Sproles, Willis or Jenkins will overpower the other and win the game.

All the answers will be found on the gridiron.

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