Can the New Orleans Saints be stopped? Can that scary offense, the most prolific in NFL history, piling up a record-smashing 7,474 yards, be handled by that notorious 49ers defense? Most people don't think so. That's why the oddsmakers have installed the Saints as a three-point favorite.
The Saints are on a roll, winning nine in a row. During that streak, QB Drew Brees, who demolished the regular season record for passing yards, has passed for 30 TDs, with only 4 picks. But there are two things working against them this time.
First, they're not at home. In the Superdome, the Saints are virtually invincible. This season that stadium was a graveyard for opponents. Second, they'll be playing on the grass of Candlestick Park. If this game were in the Superdome, on turf that's built for speed, the Niners would be dead men walking. But, this season, the Saints are an ordinary 3-2 on grass. On the slower surface, Brees' passer rating takes a dive too, slipping from an otherworldly 122.4 to a so-so 88.9.
The game is really in the hands of the 49er defense, which is fourth in the league in yards allowed. The heart of that defense is the ferocious front seven, which is by far the best in the league. Led by Patrick Willis, the game's best linebacker, this defense, which has been successful with a three-man rush, has to carry out three assignments: terrorize Brees into mistakes, clamp down on a runnning game that's 6th in the league and do some no-nonsense tackling to keep short gains from turning into big gains.
The 49ers have been winning the old-school way--with powerful defense, a time-consuming running game and lots of field goals. That's the opposite of the Saints' warp-speed formula. New Orleans can gain more yards in one game than the Niners do in two.
If its defense can clip the wings of the high-flying Saint offense, the Niners have a chance. Limiting New Orleans to a few TDs keeps in the game within the limited range of 49er QB Alex Smith (17 passing TDs, 5 picks), an efficient game manager who doesn't make many mistakes.
The Niiners do have one problem--its running game has been operating on three cylinders lately. Top RB Frank Gore hasn't had a 100-yard game since early November against Washington. Without an effective rushing offense to eat up time and, more important, to keep Brees and company off the field, the Niners are in trouble.
Still, away from home and on grass, the Saints can be had. Count on the Niner defense to step up and step on the Saints' offense and for Niner QB Smith to make few mistakes and come through in the red zone.
Will the underdog Niners defy the odds and eke out a win?