First-look preview: 49ers/Saints showdown

Fangio faces immense coaching challenge vs. Saints

To begin a week of analysis and war of the words between the 49ers and New Orleans Saints leading up to Saturday's showdown of NFC powers at Candlestick Park, we take an early preview look at several aspects, including keys to the game, the pivotal coaching matchup between Sean Payton and Vic Fangio, and who holds the edge in six vital categories (where TSX says the Niners hold a 3-2-1 advantage).


Game time: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. PST
Site: Candlestick Park in San Francisco
TV: FOX
Records: Saints, 14-3, champions of NFC South; 49ers, 13-3, champions of NFC West

Keys to the game: As scalding hot as the Saints' offense is, New Orleans travels to play outdoors on grass in an often windy stadium, not exactly the kind of conditions that are conducive to the team's high-powered pass attack. Oh, and the Saints will be facing arguably the NFL's most physically dominating defense. The Saints ran 81 plays against Detroit, averaging 7.7 yards while scoring six touchdowns and racking up a mind-boggling 626 yards. Quarterback Drew Brees has the weapons to attack every level of the field, but it's the underrated ground game of New Orleans – a rushing attack that finished ranked sixth in the league for the NFL's No. 1 offense – that makes it so difficult to back Brees into dangerous down-and-distances. San Francisco owns the league's best run defense and there will be a tremendous battle in the trenches, where the Saints have three Pro Bowl linemen to protect Brees and open holes in the run game. The 49ers want to combine a stout defense with a clock-chewing offense to limit Brees' time on the field. San Francisco will come out running Frank Gore and working the underneath passing game off play-action. Quarterback Alex Smith has been extremely efficient in an offense that has continued to evolve. But the 49ers don't want him facing third-and-long, when the Saints' opportunistic defense can dial up exotic pressure packages – like the kind New Orleans unexpectedly threw at Smith and the 49ers off the bat in the preseason opener for both teams back in August.

Matchup to watch: Saints coach Sean Payton vs. 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: Assuming the 49ers are able to jam up the Saints' running game, the outcome will be determined by how well San Francisco holds up against the pass. Does Fangio blitz frequently, or drop defenders back into passing lanes looking to come up with a few turnovers? Payton calls the plays, although Brees has the freedom to change course at the line.

Player spotlight/ Saints SS Roman Harper: He'll be active attacking the line of scrimmage in run support and led the Saints with 7.5 sacks during the regular season, but when teams can force him into coverage, he becomes a weakness.

Fast facts: The Saints have a nine-game winning streak, including seven victories by double-digits. ... LS Brian Jennings is the only 49er remaining from their last playoff team in 2002.

Who will win and why : The Saints might not be quite as explosive outdoors, but New Orleans' attack constantly keeps the pressure on. At some point the 49ers' offense will be forced into throwing more than it's comfortable with, and that's when the Saints' pass rush becomes a difference-maker. The TSX pick: Saints 27, 49ers 20

Who has the edge?


When the Saints run the ball: The ground game is quietly very important to New Orleans. The 49ers own the league's No. 1 run defense and RBs Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory won't enjoy the gaping holes they saw against Detroit. If San Francisco can contain the ground game with its front seven, it will go a long way toward helping the pass defense. Edge: 49ers

When the Saints pass the ball: Opponents had success against San Francisco's defense when they were able to adequately protect the passer and work the middle and deep part of the field. That's where Brees, sacked only once every 26.9 attempts, is most dangerous. With TE Jimmy Graham and a host of wideouts, Brees has the weapons to attack between the hashes and test deep coverage. Edge: Saints

When the 49ers run the ball: San Francisco will hit the ground running, and must be successful or risk exposing Smith to a bevy of blitzes. The 49ers have a big offensive line paving the way for RBs Gore and Kendall Hunter. While New Orleans gave up yards in chunks all season, the run defense was a respectable 12th in the league allowing 108.6 yards per game. Edge: 49ers

When the 49ers pass the ball: The Saints had the league's third-worst pass defense during the regular season, while the 49ers' passing game made steady progress. As long as the game is close and QB Alex Smith is able to work off play-action, San Francisco is in good shape. The concern is pass protection, and if the Saints can build an early lead, New Orleans (33 sacks during the regular season) will blitz heavily. Edge: Even

Special teams: The 49ers landed P Andy Lee and PK David Akers on the All-Pro first team. Akers could well be the X-factor, as the 49ers' poor red-zone offense led to 52 field-goal attempts. Lee and Akers are also familiar with Candlestick Park's often difficult wind conditions. Both teams possess potential big-play return men in the 49ers Ted Ginn and the Saints' Darren Sproles. Edge: 49ers

Coaching: Jim Harbaugh did a remarkable job turning the 49ers into a Super Bowl contender in just one season with largely the same personnel that was on the roster last year. The playoffs are a different beast and it will be interesting to see how San Francisco comes out following a bye week. The Saints' staff has a Super Bowl under its belt and the team was extremely well prepared in its dominating Wild Card victory over Detroit. Edge: Saints

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