Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins has a hard time buying the criticism San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has drawn for his recent spate of sacks and risky throws.
"Last year this guy took his team to the Super Bowl, and now basically everybody's expecting him to be that guy and be this phenomenal player, and it doesn't happen like that every week," said Jenkins, whose Saints host the 49ers on Sunday. "At any point in time, I know he can turn it on."
Now in his second season, Kaepernick is coming off one of the worst games of his young career, accumulating only 91 yards passing, throwing an interception and taking six sacks in a 10-9 loss at home to Carolina.
At this time last year, he was bursting onto the scene, thrust into a starting role he would never relinquish after Alex Smith — now with Kansas City — was sidelined by a concussion.
Kaepernick made his second career start in New Orleans last Nov. 25, and won.
The Saints were a different team then as they coped with the bounty scandal and coach Sean Payton's season-long suspension.
Now Payton is back and New Orleans (7-2) is atop the NFC South, as well as one game better than the Niners (6-3) in the overall conference standings.
"You can definitely see offensively they are machine-like and really have things going and oiled up," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Same defensively, they are doing a very good job of getting stops, getting turnovers and creating negative plays."
Here are five things to know about a potential playoff preview between the Niners and Saints:
GETTING DEFENSIVE: While the 49ers have built a strong reputation for defense over several seasons, the Saints' overhauled unit under new coordinator Rob Ryan stacks up well statistically.
The Niners rank sixth in total defense and the Saints rank seventh. The Niners are fourth in scoring defense (17.2 points per game) while the Saints rank fifth (18.1). New Orleans is third in yards passing allowed per game (199.9), while San Francisco is ninth (211.7). The 49ers are better against the run, ranking 12th (105.1 yards per game), while the Saints have struggled in that department, ranking 23rd (117.7).
San Francisco center Jonathan Goodwin gives Ryan credit for New Orleans' defensive improvement.
"I've played against his coached defense before: — very creative, very exotic and multiple," Goodwin said.
LIMITING BREES: Running back Frank Gore and the rest of San Francisco's offense realize they need to control the ball better this week in order to help their defense deal with Drew Brees, who ranks second in the NFL in yards (3,064) and TDs passing (25).
The Niners managed only 151 total yards last Sunday.
"We've just got to stay on the field, keep drives going," Gore said.
DOME ADVANTAGE: The last time the Saints were in the playoffs, they lost at San Francisco in the final seconds of a 2011 divisional round game. The Saints are not only 5-0 at home this season, but also 4-0 in home playoff games since Payton arrived in 2006. So even though nearly half the season remains, players and coaches know this clash of contenders could have playoff seeding implications down the road. If they meet again, the Saints want to be at home.
"I talk to guys across the league and they don't want to come here and play later in the year," Saints All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said. "This one is real important because you don't ever want to think ahead, but you know that this team is one of those teams that could be around later."
SMITH'S PRESSURE: If pass-rushing menace Aldon Smith returns to a full complement of snaps, Brees will have to keep a careful eye out for No. 99.
Smith played only a dozen snaps against the Panthers in his first game back following a five-game absence to undergo treatment for substance abuse. He had a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks last season, and has 4 1/2 in four games this year.
"We're going to need a guy like Aldon to be back the way he was," cornerback Carlos Rogers said.
FORCING THROWS: The Saints are making no secret they want to force Kaepernick to try to beat them with his arm.
"Their strength is running the ball, so you want to make a team beat you left-handed," Jenkins said. "Our No. 1 priority is stop the run, make them spread it out, play in the pocket, make reads, and throw accurate passes. ... I'm sure he's capable of doing it, but that's not what they want to do. We can't have a game where we allow them to rush the ball, keep Drew off the field and then make easy throws off play-action passes. We have to make them pick the ball up and beat us where I think the strength of our defense is."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report from Santa Clara, Calif.