It’s finally here. The contest that the entire San Francisco 49ers franchise and fan base (from hardcore to casual to bandwagon) have been yearning for. The faithful have waited 9 years for a meaningful playoff game and it’s finally materialized.. Not only has it arrived, but it’s going to play out on the hallowed turf of Candlestick Park. The dilapidated and maligned old stadium getting dressed up for another glimpse of playoff glory, just like it has seen so many times in the past. When the precious few tickets for the divisional playoff game did go on sale, they were gone in 90 seconds. The core of this 2011 team, QB Alex Smith, RB Frank Gore, TE Vernon Davis, LB Patrick Willis, have toiled side by side for 5 long years. For them, the excruciating wait is finally over. The entire 49ers universe is overflowing with anticipation for Saturday afternoon.
The antagonist for Saturday’s encounter is, of course, the scorching New Orleans Saints. The Saints are currently in the midst of a 9 game winning streak and feature what is arguably the most potent offensive attack in the NFL. The other side to their number 1 ranked offense is their 24th ranked defense, featuring the 30th pass defense in football. New Orleans has a tendency to make opposing quarterbacks look very impressive. The lethal combination of Matt Hasselback and Jake Locker threw for 314 yards versus the Saints D a month ago. Their defense allowed opponents a passer rating of 86, 22nd in the NFL.
Alex Smith sported a passer rating a hair short of 100 at Candlestick Park in 2011. The Niners offense as a whole played very well at home, putting 27 points per game up on the Stick’s scoreboard. The lowest home point total was 20, happening twice, in wins vs Cleveland (5th in NFL in points allowed) and Pittsburgh (1st in the NFL in points allowed). With 5 pro bowlers on the Saints offense and 4 on the Niners defense, the focus has largely been on these 2 units. What gets lost in the shuffle is the potential advantage the Niners have when their offense is on the field.
With all the talk of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dialing up some sort of diabolical blitz scheme, the Saints blitz packages haven’t been very effective this year. When their opponent’s QB dropped back to pass, the NO defense only recorded a sack 5% of the time. The Niners offensive line improved by leaps and bounds at the end of the regular season and with 2 weeks of prep should be able to handle whatever the Saints throw at them. It doesn’t hurt that Center Jonathan Goodwin will be calling out the protection schemes from the quiet, friendly confines of his home stadium against a defense he spent 2 solid years going against every day in practice. Alex Smith is one of the more mentally tough individuals to ever suit up for the 49ers and shouldn’t be bothered by the pressure of playing in a playoff game or by the pressure of a mediocre pass rush.
The 49ers defense will obviously be up against a very stiff challenge. However, the offense could be the unit that carries the team to victory. The 70,000 people the Niners will have behind them should make up one of the most raucous crowds Candlestick has ever hosted. The ghosts of the Stick’s storied past will be alive and well on Saturday. The field that hosted 22 playoff games between “The Catch” and “The Catch 2” will once again return to the post season stage. With it’s time running out, it’s time to send the old stadium out the right way.