The 49ers captured the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye heading into their first postseason appearance in nine years, thanks to a 13-3 record in the regular season and the franchise's first NFC West title since 2002.
First-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, a favorite to win Coach of the Year honors, brought a style and swagger to the San Francisco community that the organization hasn't seen in quite some time. The intense Harbaugh made believers out of 53 men and was rewarded with 13 wins and gutty performances from week-to-week as the 49ers compiled their most victories since also going 13-3 in 1997, and the team hadn't sniffed the playoffs since battling back for a 39-38 home defeat of the New York Giants in a 2002 NFC First-Round game before losing to eventual Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay the next week.
The 49ers ended years of frustration this season, finishing with 10-plus wins for the first time since their last playoff appearance, and have no plans on being a one-and-done team in the playoffs. The Niners are strongly aware that they have a tremendous challenge ahead against Brees and the high-powered Saints, however.
"He sees just about everything," 49ers center and former Saint Jonathan Goodwin told the San Francisco Chronicle of Brees. "He reads defenses like it's a piece of cake. He's one of the most accurate quarterbacks that I've ever seen. He knows where to go with the ball and he's accurate. That's a tough combination."
Luckily for Goodwin he won't be on the field the same time as Brees, but he still offers a strong insight on what his defensive mates can expect. San Francisco has a strong defense, but will have to tighten up is pass coverage and make sure New Orleans doesn't have a field day racking up yards, an area the Saints finished first in during the regular season (467.1 ypg).
Time will only tell if the extra week of rest will aid the 49ers' cause, or hinder their momentum.
The Saints' propulsion to near-excellence has been going on since bouncing back from their last defeat on Oct. 30 against the St. Louis Rams. They have won nine in a row in the meantime, including last Saturday's 45-28 victory over the Detroit Lions at the Superdome in the opening round of the NFC Playoffs.
Trailing by a 14-10 score at halftime, Brees and the Saints turned it on afterward en route to another 40-plus point effort and an NFL postseason record of 626 total yards. Brees also did most of his damage in the second half as he lit up the night for a total of 466 passing yards with three touchdown strikes and no interceptions.
He was asked about having to play in outdoor conditions this coming week, and responded with an extensive reply.
"I feel like our offense and our team is built for whatever condition," Brees said. "We play indoors here in the Superdome and that's what we've been doing as of late, but we feel like we're the type of team that should be able to go anywhere, anytime, and play our type of football that we know how to play. There are elements at times you have to deal with no matter where it is, but we'll adjust accordingly. I don't see any reason why we can't go on and continue to be productive."
New Orleans has achieved plenty of success through the air this season, which has pushed a lot of credit away from the team's ground attack. Multi-purpose back Darren Sproles and counterpart Pierre Thomas have been healthy all season and lead the Saints' sixth-rated running game, and they combined for 117 rushing yards and three scores against the Lions while Chris Ivory added a game-high 13 carries for 47 yards.
The 49ers are No. 1 in the NFL against the rush, so it will be interesting to see how New Orleans attacks early on.
The Saints and 49ers have never previously faced one another in the postseason, but San Francisco owns a sizeable 45-24-2 advantage in a regular- season series between teams that used to meet twice annually when both were members of the NFC West from 1970 to 2001. New Orleans has dominated the set as of late, however, and extended its winning streak over the Niners to six straight games with a hard-earned 25-22 decision at Candlestick Park during Week 2 of the 2010 season. The Saints also posted a 31-10 road victory in 2007 as part of their current run of mastery of San Francisco, which dates back to the 2002 campaign. The 49ers last bested New Orleans via a 28-27 score in San Francisco on Nov. 11, 2001.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton owns a 4-0 career record against San Francisco and a 5-2 mark in the postseason, though the Saints have lost both of their two prior playoff appearances on the road under his command. Harbaugh will be making his postseason debut as a head man and will also be opposing both the Saints and Payton for the first time in his present capacity.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees (5476 passing yards, 46 TD, 14 INT) did not throw an interception versus Detroit and recorded his 12th rating of 100 or better (134.4) this season after completing 33 of his 43 pass attempts for a postseason career-high of 466 yards. In seven career postseason games with the Saints, Brees has 16 touchdown passes and just one interception, and owns a streak of 215 consecutive postseason pass attempts without a pick. The Saints' 626 yards against the Lions topped the NFL playoff record of 610 yards San Diego put on Boston back in 1963, while New Orleans' 34 first downs also tied an NFL postseason record set by the Chargers against Miami in 1981. During the regular season, the Saints were first in passing yards (334.2 ypg) and total offense (467.1 ypg) and second in points scored (34.2 ppg), though it remains to be seen if their potent offense will be slowed on the grass turf of Candlestick Park this weekend. Tight end Jimmy Graham (99 receptions, 1310 yards, 11 TD) and wide receivers Robert Meachem (40 receptions, 6 TD) and Devery Henderson (32 receptions, 2 TD) all found the end zone versus the Lions, with Meachem recording four catches for 111 yards. Fellow wideout Marques Colston (80 receptions, 1143 yards, 8 TD) led the team with 120 yards on seven receptions last week.
The 49ers understand that Brees can make it a lopsided score by the end of the first quarter, so applying pressure up front will be key. The Niners can't forget about the Saints' ground game either, but will be heavily prepared for that aspect since they had the best run defense in the regular season, allowing just 77.2 rushing yards per game. San Francisco also allowed only three rushing touchdowns all season -- all coming in the last two games -- and surrendered 100 rushing yards or more just three times this year. Linebackers Patrick Willis (97 tackles) and NaVorro Bowman (143 tackles) were a solid 1-2 punch for San Francisco's defense and combined for 13 stops in the win over the Rams in Week 17. Bowman had one of the team's three sacks in that game, while stud defensive lineman Justin Smith (58 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and linebacker Ahmad Brooks (49 tackles, 7 sacks) had the others. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith (37 tackles) had a team-best 14 sacks this season and will be needed to harass Brees in the pocket, while the defense will have to be aware of underneath routes involving Graham, who's been Brees' favorite target all season. Forcing turnovers comes naturally to both safety Dashon Goldson (67 tackles) and cornerback Carlos Rogers (44 tackles), as the duo led the team with six interceptions apiece. Cornerback Tarell Brown (40 tackles) has four interceptions on the season, two of which came in the finale against St. Louis.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Throwing the football would be key to San Francisco's success, since the Saints finished near the bottom of the league in pass defense (30th) during the regular season. The Lions were able to pick apart the New Orleans secondary, and the outcome could have been different had Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford not thrown two interceptions. 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (3144 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT), the draft's top pick back in 2005, made a case for Comeback Player of the Year in the regular season and didn't throw an interception in the final five weeks. He also didn't throw for more than 300 yards in any contest this season, and it's uncertain if Harbaugh will dial up the passing game on Saturday. Smith had just two touchdown throws over the last four games as well, but has built a solid rapport with wide receiver Michael Crabtree (72 receptions, 4 TD). The former first-round choice had a team-best 874 receiving yards and also led the 49ers in catches, while tight end Vernon Davis (67 receptions, 6 TD) was first on the club with six touchdown grabs and can give any defense nightmares with his speed and power. Davis said this week that the playoffs are one-and-done and that he'll be playing with a lot of energy to "take advantage of the opportunity." San Francisco hopes wideout/returner Ted Ginn Jr. can battle back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the end of the regular season, and fellow receiver Kyle Williams (20 receptions, 3 TD) also missed time with a concussion. Both should be good to go, however, after returning to practice this week. Running back Frank Gore (1211 rushing yards, 8 TD) sat out the second half of the Week 17 win over St. Louis but is in no danger of missing this game, and he has 275 yards and a touchdown in four career games against the Saints.
New Orleans shouldn't take the 49ers' 29th-rated pass attack lightly, since Stafford threw for 380 yards with three touchdown passes despite having a pair of passes intercepted by cornerback Jabari Greer (72 tackles). Greer, who had only one interception in the regular season, was part of a secondary that gave up big plays and 211 yards to Lions All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson, who had 12 catches and scored twice in the game. Greer also had four passes defensed and matched cornerback Tracy Porter (52 tackles, 1 INT) for the team lead with seven tackles, however. San Francisco's only threats catching passes are Davis and Crabtree, but the Saints have to know where both are at all times. New Orleans finished 30th in pass defense this season, allowing 259.8 yards per game through the air, and must create turnovers to give the offense a shot. Safety and leading tackler Roman Harper (95 tackles) led the defense with 7 1/2 sacks, but the team failed to get one on Stafford last week and that will need change in this matchup against Smith. It wouldn't be a surprise to see San Francisco unleash Gore right away against a New Orleans run defense that finished 12th in that category during the regular season, though Detroit found it difficult to run last week in New Orleans, compiling a paltry 32 yards rushing. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (54 tackles) will try to be a force in the middle, while pressure up front will come in the form of tackle Sedrick Ellis (29 tackles) and end Will Smith (35 tackles, 6.5 sacks).
49ers Pro Bowl kicker David Akers set a single-season NFL record with 44 field goals (44-of-53) and connected on all 34 of his PAT tries during the regular season. The lefty kicker was let go by Philadelphia in the offseason and became San Francisco's treasure right away. Punter Andy Lee also showed off his leg this season, earning a Pro Bowl nod with an average of 50.9 yards per boot. He had 78 punts for 3,970 yards and landed 28 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Ginn is the 49ers' fastest and best return man, but Kendall Hunter and Williams can also intervene if Ginn is not healthy to play. Long snapper Brian Jennings is the only player remaining from San Francisco's last playoff appearance.
For New Orleans, Sproles has been a house of horrors for defensive coordinators and opposing special teams units with his blazing speed and elusiveness. He not only can hurt defenses up the middle or catching passes out of the backfield, but will also set up Brees and the offense in great field position with his returns, as he averaged 27.2 yards on 40 kickoff returns and 10.1 yards on 29 punt runbacks. Thomas Morstead handled punting duties and averaged 48.4 yards on 46 booms. Veteran kicker John Kasay isn't getting any younger and finished with a 77.2 percentage (28-of-34) on field goal attempts, but made all 63 of his point-after tries in a busy season.
Defense doesn't come to mind when speaking of the Saints, and they were fortunate enough to score more points than the defensively-challenged Lions last week. Fast forward to the present, and New Orleans has a tough challenge against San Francisco's highly-regarded stop unit. Scoring points and running the football are two aspects of the game opposing teams had trouble doing against the 49ers this season, and that's something the Saints will be trying to achieve early on Saturday. They have won the last six matchups with the 49ers, averaging 31 points per game in that time, but must protect the football considering San Francisco led the league with a plus-28 turnover differential. Brees said he has no qualms about playing outdoors on the West Coast, but observers should expect a drop-off in offensive stats in this one. That being said, it will be Brees who leads the Saints into their third NFC Championship Game in the last six years. He'll have some defensive help, too, since Gore is the only true offensive threat for the 49ers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, 49ers 17