The San Francisco 49ers are three and a half point underdogs for their home playoff game against the Saints on Saturday. Usually, a second seed in the playoffs with a home game would be the favorite team to win. When you look at how the 49ers earned a first-round bye this season, not much was conventional. The team had a freakish plus-28 turnover margin, the defense did not allow a rushing touchdown until week 16, had a kicker break records and all with Alex Smith at quarterback. Really, the only thing conventional about the 49ers was the solid power running game behind Frank Gore.
One of the unconventional ways the 49ers won this season is also where they are criticized the most, Alex Smith at quarterback. Even though Smith was considered a bust at the beginning of the season, he was rejuvenated at the end. Smith did not play like Drew Brees but he came through when needed in the clutch, put the offense in position to score points and, yes, was a game manager too. Smith not being able to push the offense into the end zone after entering inside the 20-yard line is the team’s biggest weakness. The 49ers are fortunate to have David Akers but the offenses red zone issues have been a problem all season, seemingly not having any answers to solve it.
The Saints offense on the other hand has no problem scoring anywhere on the field. With nine straight games with over 300 passing yards and 25 touchdowns passes during the streak, Drew Brees can carve up any defense. The 49ers defense will not look like the hapless Lions last week but will give the Saints offense pressure all game to stop the run game and disrupt Brees’ rhythm.
Brees has faced tough defenses before in the playoffs and always seems to find a weakness in a defense to exploit. Brees brings plenty of experience in the playoffs with eight starts with one in the Super Bowl. The Saints quarterback is 5-3 in the playoffs with two-game winning drives and a Super Bowl ring. The 49ers Faithful will be loud every time the Saints have the football but something tells me it won’t affect Brees. Super Bowl winning teams have a great quarterback, and the Saints have that in Brees.
The 49ers drafted Alex Smith in 2005 to be the type of franchise quarterback Brees is to the Saints. Smith will be making his first career playoff start and it could not come at a bigger time with him bringing the franchise back to the playoffs and respectability. Smith had his best season of his career (17 TD’s, 5 INT’s, 3144 passing yards) and returned the 49ers back atop of the NFC West. The 49ers quarterback faces his biggest test of his career on Saturday. Not necessarily against the Saints defense, but being tasked with trying to keep up scoring with Brees.
Many NFL pundits are looking past the 49ers mainly because of the Saints prolific offense. They acknowledge the 49ers physical defense, great special teams, power running game and the home field advantage, however still pick the Saints. Niner fans concede the Saints great offense but we know our defense can keep them in check to between 20-30 points. The problem is, having faith in Smith being able to lead the offense to at least two to three touchdowns against the Saints defense. We will also need a defensive or special teams touchdown and a few field goals by Akers. All of this is not impossible for the 49ers and will be needed in order to win.
Why I think a majority of people, outside of the 49ers Faithful, are picking the Saints over the 49ers is because everyone is waiting for the team to revert back to their losing ways. The 49ers were given credit for what they accomplished but people still saw the Mike Singletary team from last season, waiting for the old, losing ways to come back. And they are still waiting, even now with the 49ers in the playoffs. But don’t expect that from Alex Smith or anyone else on the team. That doesn't happen on a Jim Harbaugh led team.