On Saturday, January 14, the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers will be on their home turf to battle the 13-3 New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Playoffs.
Although this is the first post season match-up of these two teams, there exists plenty of history between the NFC rivals. The Saints have won all six games since the restructuring of the NFC division in 2002. The most recent meeting between the two was in September of 2010, which the Saints won 25-22.
While the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, the 49ers are back in the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. The match-up of the 49ers impenetrable defense against the Saints’ invincible offense will create a thrilling matchup, featuring two record-breaking units – the classic unstoppable force versus the immovable object.
The 49er’s defense has been the team’s greatest strength this season, and should challenge Brees and Co. One of their key concerns will be figuring out how to handle tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles, who have featured prominently in the Saints passing game. Graham had 99 receptions and Sproles had 86, and they combined for over 2,000 of Brees’ record 5,476 yards.
If Graham and Sproles try to sneak over the middle, they will run into the 49ers pair of First Team All-Pro linebackers – Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. But Bowman, Willis and the 49ers secondary will have to be almost flawless to slow down the Saints juggernaut passing game.
Offensively, the 49ers are known for their power running offense. They rely heavily on their running game, with Frank Gore punching through holes created by the offensive line and rookie full back Bruce Miller. Although they do have the personnel to contain the 49ers running game, the Saints may be short a healthy Roman Harper. Harper, at strong safety, has definitely been key in run support as he led the team in tackles as well as sacks; however, his ankle injury during last week’s game makes him questionable for Saturday.
Harper believes that he will be ready, bit depending on the severity of his injury, this key component of the Saints defense, will not be as fast as usual. The 49er’s will try to take advantage of this situation and rookie running back Kendall Hunter, their underrated backup who is quicker than Gore, may present problems for the Saints defense.
Both teams are gearing up for a dogfight. Willis said this week, “It’s going to be a battle…We know that and I’m sure they know that as well. They’re going to do what they need to do to prepare to come in to play against us and we’re going to do that same (thing). We’ll see where the chips lay when the game is over, but we’re certainly going to come with everything we have. It’s either win or go home.”
49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith laid out the road map for success. “It always comes down to fundamentals,” Smith said. “It always comes down to blocking, tackling and catching the football. They’re not Houdini out there. They can’t run one way and go the other. If we just go out there and play sound football, we’ll be alright.”
The game is expected to kick off at 1:30pm PST and will be broadcasted on FOX and Sirius 86.