If you want to see what happens when the best offense in the NFL goes up against the best defense, you’ll want to tune in to this one. I have heard from a few people that think the 49ers defense is a tad overrated, but there’s no denying this is a good unit that can give offenses fits. Will it be enough to throw one of the best offenses we have ever seen out of sync? We will all find out today at 4:30 (EST). One thing is true, last week the Lions had no chance whatsoever at throwing the Saints potent attack out of sync. The Saints passed and ran all over the hapless Lions, putting up a staggering 626 yards. Is the 626 yards indicative of the Lions defense, or Saints offense? Perhaps a little of both, but the Saints have been unstoppable lately. Drew Brees diced up the Lions for 459 yards, and will look to come close to emulating that in San Francisco. The 49ers are coming off a bye after a season where they captured the NFL West title.
Playing in a weak division definitely assisted the 49ers, but they’re one of those teams that have flown under the radar that has the potential to do damage in the playoffs. To most people, the 49ers have two of the most important ingredients to make a run: defense and solid ground game. The defense has been hailed as the top unit in the NFL this season thanks to newly acquired coach Jim Harbaugh. They have been virtually impossible to run the ball on, only allowing an average of 77 yards a game (1st). The Niners have held some impressive rushing teams in check; including the Ravens, Steelers, Seahawks, Cowboys, and Eagles. So this isn’t just a unit that has preyed off of bad teams, they are battle tested through and through. Problems arise, though, when you look at their pass defense (16th). They aren’t awful in any regard, but can be exploited by a quarterback that can dish the ball. An injured Ben Roethlisberger passed for 330 yards, Eli Manning went for 311 yards, Michael Vick torched them for 416 yards, and finally Tony Romo passed for 345 yards. However, the only game they lost out of this bunch was to the Dallas Cowboys. In this respect, the 49ers employ a bend but don’t break defense. Will the Saints be able to open the flood gates?
The Saints have opened the flood gates on more than one occasion; they have throttled hapless defenses with ease this season. They rank 1st in the NFL in total yardage, posting 467.1 yards a game, along with 34.2 points a game. Quarterback Drew Brees broke the single-season passing record this season, putting up 5,476 yards. Brees also tossed 46 touchdowns to add to his impressive resume. The passing game is certainly the pinnacle of the Saints offense, but the running game isn’t too bad either (6th). In the shadow of Brees, the Saints employed a running attack that gave teams headaches as well. They have several backs that impel the Saints offense on the ground. Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory all bring outstanding talent to the equation. The Lions found out how hard they run last week, as they totaled 167 yards to go along with Brees impressive numbers. If the Saints wanted to run for 250 they very well could have. Now, I am not saying this is going to be duplicated against the 49ers, but what it will do is keep the 49ers honest. Not only will they need to focus on Brees, but they’ll have to keep an eye on the Saint’s ground attack.
The 49ers offensively rely on their workhorse running back, Frank Gore. Their smash mouth run it up the gut mentality will test the Saints defense early and often. The 49ers run game ranks 8th in the NFL, for 127.8 yards per game. The Saints aren’t entirely bad against stopping the run (12th), so they do have the personnel to slow the Niners down. The Saints are ranked 30th against the pass, so this is where the 49ers are going to want to attack them. But is Alex Smith going to be able to do that in his first ever playoff game? Smith saved his career this season, after throwing for 3,144 yards with 17 TDs and only 5 INTs. It is obvious from this, that Smith minimized the mistakes and made it possible for the run game to dictate ball games; quite the contrary to his previous campaigns in the NFL. Because of this simple doctrine, the 49ers are in the position they are in right now.
Saints vs. 49ers Spread, Line and Betting Odds:
New Orleans Saints -3.5
@San Francisco +3.5
Over 47 (-110)
Under 47 (-110)
Saints vs. 49ers Pick:
The 49ers defense is going to be going up against their biggest test this season. No longer are they going to be able to simply manage games and get by like they have in the NFL West. They may need to take chances and force the ball downfield if they want to win this one. Defensive coordinator Greg Williams loves to dial up the blitz, forcing quarterbacks into mistakes. Alex Smith has had trouble staying upright this year, so I expect nothing to change from the Saints defense. The 49ers defense is great, but in the last seven games they played the 15th, 31st, 19th, 12th (injured Roethlisberger), 28th, and 31st ranked offenses. I am not quite sure they are going to be ready for the Saints high powered air raid.
Drew Brees is absolutely on fire, and I don’t think the 16th best pass defense is going to faze him. Sure, the Saints are a dome team going outside to play, but the weather for Saturday is shaping up to be beautiful in San Francisco. I could see this one being close for three quarters, and the Saints pulling away to win by about 10-13 points. The bend but don’t break defense of the Niners won’t be able to hold them down all game.
PICK = Saints -3.5 @ www.5dimes.com