New Orleans Saints (13-3) vs. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, January 14 at 1:30 PM PST
Weather: Sunny (53°F)
Game day is upon us 49ers Faithful. Today the 49ers will remind the Saints and the NFL world of the deep and successful tradition of this franchise. We have waited eight seasons for the 49ers to return to the playoffs. It has been a while since the 49ers have played a win or go home game, so we can expect a loud and hostile crowd at Candlestick Park. Here are five things to watch for in the Saints vs. 49ers game:
Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham
The Saints offense will get their yardage and touchdowns. The key to controlling the offense and keeping the game within two scores is containing RB Darren Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham. The 49ers defense cannot overlook the run which includes not only Sproles but RB Pierre Thomas who does the bulk of the running. If Sproles is able to get out in the open field with no 49ers defenders in the area, he will run for a touchdown. Saints head coach Sean Payton knows everyone is focusing on the passing game. The Saints have a good rushing game which was ranked 6th in the NFL. Payton will look to surprise the 49ers with plenty of rushes and passes out of the backfield with the receivers taking the secondary out of the area. It will be up to Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman to contain Thomas and Sproles from running in open space. Something tells me Willis and Bowman will be able to handle the task.
One key to stopping the Saints passing offense is eliminating Jimmy Graham. Many teams have tried and failed in containing Graham who is favorite target of Drew Brees. Graham standing in at 6-feet-6 will be hard to matchup and stop. Willis will most likely be covering him with his speed, anticipation and coverage skills. Limiting Sproles and Graham’s impact will allow more pressure on Brees.
Slow and Steady
The 49ers running game will be a huge part of the game plan against the Saints. The offense will need to control the clock by sustaining long drives and running down the play clock as much as possible. The more time the 49ers offense is on the field, the less Brees and the Saints offense is on the field to do damage. With Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter the offense will be able to run against the Saints. Expect a big day from Gore who is well rested as he hardly played in the season finale and had last week to rest. A successful running game will set up the play action for Alex Smith. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman likes to have Smith go to the outside after a play action to find the open receiver on the run which will catch the Saints defense off guard.
The way the 49ers will be able to control the play clock is running and passing to all areas of the field. Roman makes defenses play the whole field by rushing wide receivers on end-rounds and passing to offensive and defensive linemen.
49ers Red Zone Offense
The 49ers offense will not have issues inside the red zone. You cannot win championships with the way the offense has sputtered out inside the 20. Harbaugh knows this and during the last few weeks of the season had the offense go up against the first-team defense in practice to help them improve. The 49ers defense showed all season they are great at stopping teams inside the red zone ranking 4th best in the NFL. In the last three games against the Steelers, Seahawks and Rams the offense scored on six touchdowns on their eight possessions inside the 20, so it looks like it helped.
The only way the 49ers will keep up with the Saints and win is scoring touchdowns after entering the red zone. Three points by David Akers will not cut it in the playoffs. The offense needs to score as many touchdowns as possible.
The way the 49ers beat teams this season was winning the turnover aspect of the game with an NFL best plus-28 turnover margin. This will be huge against the Saints as it will stop drives and give the football back to the offense to score and run out the clock. We should see at least one interception and one fumble from the 49ers defense. On the other side Alex Smith has played smart with the football all season and I cannot imagine he will start making bad decisions resulting in interceptions. If the 49ers do have a turnover it will be a fumble.
Plenty of Saints players have been here before in the playoffs with many Super Bowl winners from two seasons ago. Much of the 49ers players do not have playoff experience. C Jonathan Goodwin, who won a Super Bowl with the Saints, and CB Carlos Rogers are the only starters with playoff experience. The Niners cannot come out too hyped and excited, trying to make a big play which results in a mistake and big play for the Saints. Jitters on the opening drives will be expected. After that the 49ers will need to be ready to play and wipe away any unnecessary left over excitement in order to execute.
Prediction: Saints 25 49ers 27
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