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NFL Pick: Thunderous New Orleans Saints Travel To San Francisco 49ers

by Aengus Moorehead

NFL Pick: Thunderous New Orleans Saints Travel To San Francisco 49ers

Analysis:
Drew Brees and the high-powered New Orleans Saints will test the notion that defense wins championship when they pay a visit to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday afternoon. The game is a purist's dream, matching the league's top offense against its best defense in the only one of this weekend’s four playoff games that is not a rematch of the regular season. Brees eclipsed Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards in putting up offensive numbers rarely seen this side of a video game.

Third-seeded New Orleans arrives in the Bay Area riding a nine-game winning streak and having scored 45 points in each of its last three games, including last week's 45-28 demolition of the Detroit Lions in the wild card round. No. 2 seed San Francisco counters with a defense that allowed an NFC-low 14.3 points per game. The 49ers can also point to one critical stat: The Saints have never won a road playoff game, including last season’s 41-36 loss at Seattle.

The 49ers captured the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye heading into their first postseason appearance in nine years, thanks to a 13-3 record in the regular season and the franchise's first NFC West title since 2002.

First-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, a favorite to win Coach of the Year honors, brought a style and swagger to the San Francisco community that the organization hasn't seen in quite some time.

The intense Harbaugh made believers out of 53 men and was rewarded with 13 wins and gutty performances from week-to-week as the 49ers compiled their most victories since also going 13-3 in 1997, and the team hadn't sniffed the playoffs since battling back for a 39-38 home defeat of the New York Giants in a 2002 NFC First-Round game before losing to eventual Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay the next week.

The 49ers ended years of frustration this season, finishing with 10-plus wins for the first time since their last playoff appearance, and have no plans on being a one-and-done team in the playoffs. The Niners are strongly aware that they have a tremendous challenge ahead against Brees and the high-powered Saints, however.

The Saints' propulsion to near-excellence has been going on since bouncing back from their last defeat on Oct. 30 against the St. Louis Rams. They have won nine in a row in the meantime.

New Orleans has achieved plenty of success through the air this season, which has pushed a lot of credit away from the team's ground attack. Multi-purpose back Darren Sproles and counterpart Pierre Thomas have been healthy all season and lead the Saints' sixth-rated running game, and they combined for 117 rushing yards and three scores against the Lions while Chris Ivory added a game-high 13 carries for 47 yards.

The 49ers are No. 1 in the NFL against the rush, so it will be interesting to see how New Orleans attacks early on.

The Saints and 49ers have never previously faced one another in the postseason, but San Francisco owns a sizeable 45-24-2 advantage in a regular- season series between teams that used to meet twice annually when both were members of the NFC West from 1970 to 2001. New Orleans has dominated the set as of late, however, and extended its winning streak over the Niners to six straight games with a hard-earned 25-22 decision at Candlestick Park during Week 2 of the 2010 season.

The Saints also posted a 31-10 road victory in 2007 as part of their current run of mastery of San Francisco, which dates back to the 2002 campaign. The 49ers last bested New Orleans via a 28-27 score in San Francisco on Nov. 11, 2001.

New Orleans head coach Sean Payton owns a 4-0 career record against San Francisco and a 5-2 mark in the postseason, though the Saints have lost both of their two prior playoff appearances on the road under his command. Harbaugh will be making his postseason debut as a head man and will also be opposing both the Saints and Payton for the first time in his present capacity.

Time & Venue:
- 4:30 PM ET, Saturday, January 14, 2012. Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California

Last Week's results:
- New Orleans Saints (-10.5) beats visiting Detroit Lions 45-28.
- San Francisco 49ers (-10.5) beats host St-Louis Rams 34-27 in week 17.

Last week's ATS:
- Favourite New Orleans Saints (14-3) wins and covers
- Favourite San Francisco 49ers (13-3) wins but does not cover.

NFL Football Odds: Saints -4, O/U 47.5

Team records:
- New Orleans Saints: 13-3 SU, 12-4 ATS
- San Francisco 49ers: 13-3 SU, 11-4-1 ATS

Brees threw for 466 yards and three TDs as New Orleans amassed a postseason-record 626 yards against Detroit. The Saints trailed at halftime before reeling off 35 second-half points. Brees has not been intercepted in 215 attempts – another playoff record – and is the only quarterback to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back postseason games, although one came in a loss at seven-win Seattle last season.

New Orleans showed great balance last week by getting 164 rushing yards from the trio of Thomas, Sproles and Ivory. While Marques Colston is Brees’ favorite target, the biggest matchup nightmares are third-down back Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham. They had a combined 185 receptions and scored 20 TDs between them in the regular season.

San Francisco is in the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season, rebounding from last season’s 6-10 mark under Harbaugh. The 49ers’ formula is pure smash-mouth football, utilizing the running of Frank Gore and an unyielding defense that surrendered only 308.2 yards per game.

The first-round bye had to help Gore, who rushed for 1,211 yards and had five straight 100-yard games before injuries limited him over the second half of the season. QB Alex Smith threw for 3,144 yards and was intercepted only five times, but he also had only 17 TDs for a team that too often settled for field goals.

Indeed, Pro Bowl K David Akers set a single-season NFL record with 44 field goals (44-of-53) and connected on all 34 of his PAT tries during the regular season. The lefty kicker was let go by Philadelphia in the offseason and became San Francisco's treasure right away.

Punter Andy Lee also showed off his leg this season, earning a Pro Bowl nod with an average of 50.9 yards per boot. He had 78 punts for 3,970 yards and landed 28 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Ted Ginn Jr. is the 49ers' fastest and best return man, but Kendall Hunter and Kyle Williams can also intervene if Ginn is not healthy to play. Long snapper Brian Jennings is the only player remaining from San Francisco's last playoff appearance.

For New Orleans, Sproles has been a house of horrors for defensive coordinators and opposing special teams units with his blazing speed and elusiveness. He not only can hurt defenses up the middle or catching passes out of the backfield, but will also set up Brees and the offense in great field position with his returns, as he averaged 27.2 yards on 40 kickoff returns and 10.1 yards on 29 punt runbacks.

Thomas Morstead handled punting duties and averaged 48.4 yards on 46 booms. Veteran kicker John Kasay isn't getting any younger and finished with a 77.2 percentage (28-of-34) on field goal attempts, but made all 63 of his point-after tries in a busy season.

The Saints have beaten the 49ers six straight times, including a 25-22 victory in San Francisco last season on a field goal as time expired.

New Orleans was 5-3 on the road and was held to 26 points or less in four of its last five away from home.

The 49ers allowed a league-record three rushing touchdowns for the season.

San Francisco is 3-10 ATS in its last 13 games when playing New Orleans
San Francisco is 1-5 ATS in its last 6 games when playing at home against New Orleans
San Francisco is 2-4 ATS in its last 6 games
New Orleans is 4-9 SU in its last 13 games when playing on the road against San Francisco
The total has gone OVER in 5 of New Orleans's last 5 games when playing on the road against San Francisco
New Orleans is 5-0 SU in its last 5 games when playing San Francisco

Defense doesn't come to mind when speaking of the Saints, and they were fortunate enough to score more points than the defensively-challenged Lions last week. Fast forward to the present, and New Orleans has a tough challenge against San Francisco's highly-regarded stop unit. Scoring points and running the football are two aspects of the game opposing teams had trouble doing against the 49ers this season, and that's something the Saints will be trying to achieve early on Saturday.

They have won the last six matchups with the 49ers, averaging 31 points per game in that time, but must protect the football considering San Francisco led the league with a plus-28 turnover differential. Brees said he has no qualms about playing outdoors on the West Coast, but observers should expect a drop-off in offensive stats in this one. That being said, it will be Brees who leads the Saints into their third NFC Championship Game in the last six years. He'll have some defensive help, too, since Gore is the only true offensive threat for the 49ers.

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NFL Football Pick: Take Saints.

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alex smith - andy lee - brian jennings - candlestick park - chris ivory - darren sproles - david akers - detroit lions - drew brees - frank gore

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