By: Zachary Finkelstein
What happens when an unstoppable force collides with an impregnable object?
We will find out Saturday when the defensively superior San Francisco 49ers welcome the high-octane New Orleans Saints to Candlestick Park for an NFC divisional playoff battle.
The preseason game between these teams was rather ugly for the 49ers, whose offense was shut down in a 24-3 drubbing. There was even post-game talk that Saints coach Sean Payton had elected to employ a heavy blitz package — which is unconventional for the preseason — because he was miffed that 49ers rookie coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t call during the week to discuss a “gentleman’s agreement” on how the exhibition would be played.
The game didn’t turn out to be a death knell for the 49ers, who earned the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a wild-card week bye after wrapping up an improbable 13-3 regular season. New Orleans finished 13-3, as well, but was nudged to the No. 3 seed after losing a tiebreaker.
Their identical records notwithstanding, the Niners and Saints found success through very different means. To understand better, let’s take a position-by-position look at the tale of the tape.
Quarterback: On Jan. 5, I wrote the following argument in support of Saints quarterback Drew Brees’s MVP candidacy:
“The Saints’ signal caller set a new NFL single-season record with 5,476 passing yards, breaking a 27-year-old mark that had been held by the great Dan Marino (5,084 yards in 1984). Brees’ feat is all the more mesmerizing when you consider that he accomplished it without compromising his amazing accuracy; 71.6 percent of his passes were completed, another NFL record).”
When the season was all said and done, Brees basically had taken a wrecking ball to the league’s regular-season record books, setting new single-season marks with 468 completions, 278 first-down passes, 13 300-yard games and seven straight 300-yard games. Yeah, he was pretty good.
And now for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who will forever remind Bay area folks more of Tim Rattay than Brees. The first overall pick of the 2005 draft, Smith has largely underperformed expectations during his NFL career. This has been the signal caller’s best season, however, as the seventh-year pro set career bests with a 61.4 completion percentage, a 90.7 QB rating and a total of 3,199 yards in the air. Most importantly for San Francisco, Smith only threw five interceptions for a team that turned the ball over only 10 times all season — a total that tied the 2010 Patriots for the fewest in league history since 1941.
Quarterback Edge: Saints by a landslide. Brees will be the best player on the field Saturday.
Running Backs: New Orleans’ 2011 first-round pick, running back Mark Ingram, was placed on the injury reserve list last week with a sprained toe after rushing for 474 yards on a team-leading 122 carries during his rookie season. The loss will not slow the Saints’ ground game, however, as New Orleans still has a three-headed attack in Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory.
Sproles led New Orleans with 603 rushing yards on an impressive 6.9 yards per carry. The diminutive Saint (he’s 5-foot-6) added 86 catches (most among NFL running backs) for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. The all-purpose back, who was also successful at returning kickoffs and punts, amassed an NFL record 2,696 net yards on the year, breaking the mark formerly held by Derrick Mason of the 2000 Titans.
Thomas, who breaks as many tackles as anyone in the game, was second on the Saints with 562 rushing yards and five scores. The fifth-year pro also recorded 425 receiving yards and two touchdowns after catching 50 balls. Ivory, New Orleans’ power back, often ran up the middle and behind an offensive line consisting of three Pro Bowlers. All told, the team effort resulted in the sixth-best rushing attack in the NFL, averaging 132.9 yards per week.
Frank Gore will likely have to carry the load and keep the Saints’ offense off the field in order for the 49ers to stand a chance on Saturday. San Francisco’s veteran back has the talent to do so, having rattled off a stretch of five straight games over 100 yards rushing en route to a 1,211-yard regular season. The 49ers also employ a quick change-of-pace rookie in Kendall Hunter, who assumed a larger role in the offense when Gore was nursing various injuries during the season’s second half.
Rushing edge: 49ers. They’re cooked if they don’t have this advantage. New Orleans’ talented trio should not be underestimated, but the Saints will not be interested in winning the game on the ground.
Wide Receivers: When a quarterback breaks a zillion passing records, his wideouts are bound to accumulate rather impressive numbers. That’s exactly what happened in NOLA, where three men recorded more than 80 receptions. Receiver Marques Colston hauled in 80 balls for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns in only 14 games. The team’s top target in 2011 lined up at tight end, however, as 6-foot-6 Jimmy Graham caught 99 balls for 1,310 yards and 11 scores. The aforementioned Sproles finished second on the Saints with 86 receptions.
As was previously written, the Niners’ chances of winning will rest on the ground game’s ability to carry the offensive load. Michael Crabtree was a beacon of light in a sea of injured (e.g., Josh Morgan) and under-performing (Braylon Edwards) players. Meanwhile, tight end Vernon Davis is an absolute beast who can catch, run and block.
Receiving Edge: New Orleans wins the wideout war.
Defense: The Saints’ defensive strategy is to score more points than the other team. The unit allowed the 24th most yards per game (368.4) during the regular season and recorded only 16 takeaways, 22 fewer than the 49ers.
The 49ers, who recorded the lowest yards (308.1) and points allowed average (14.3) in the NFC, have four Pro Bowlers on the roster: Defensive end Justin Smith, linebacker Patrick Willis, cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebacker Aldon Smith may win Defensive Rookie of the Year accolades.
San Francisco will also be aided by the fact that the Saints’ prolific offense won’t be in a dome, where they averaged 38 points per game in 11 indoor affairs. New Orleans was slowed considerably when forced outdoors, where they averaged 25.8 points in five games. On a related note, the 49ers defense was incredibly stingy over the final three home games, allowing a grand total of 10 points to the Steelers, Rams and Cardinals (not offensive juggernauts, but still).
The 49ers were especially suffocating against the run, surrendering a league-low 77.3 rushing yards per week. They also led the NFL with 38 turnovers forced. A few against the Saints won’t hurt their chances.
Defensive Edge: 49ers. Unless you actually buy the adage that the best defense is a good offense.
Special Teams: Saints kicker John Kasay converted 28 of 32 field goals, and Thomas Morstead finished second to 49ers punter Andy Lee with a net punt average of 43.1 yards. The do-it-all Sproles was one of the top return men in the league, averaging 27.2 yards per kickoff and a very respectable 10.1 yards per punt.
49ers kicker David Akers set new NFL records with 44 field goals and 166 points, and Lee booted for the best net average of all-time at 44.0 yards per punt. Ted Ginn opened the season by scoring on both a kickoff and punt — in a 58-second span — against the Seattle Seahawks. He finished it third and fourth in kickoff (27.6 yards) and punt returns (12.3), respectively.
Special Edge: It’s a tossup. But expect special teams to play a part in Saturday’s outcome.
Zachary Finkelstein is a contributing writer to CBS Local and a graduate of Northeastern University.