We are just a couple days away from the 49ers and Saints squaring off in a rematch of last year's divisional round classic. The Saints have bounced back from an 0-4 start to get to 5-5 and right back in the thick of the playoff race. Early in the season their defense was fairly atrocious. They haven't been perfect since then, but they have shown considerable improvement the last few weeks. A potential Colin Kaepernick start should make for an intriguing test for the Saints defense.
At the same time, the 49ers defense will have its own stiff challenge. The 49ers defense got off to a strong start in last year's matchup, but struggled mightily in the second and fourth quarters. The 49ers can put up the points to win a high scoring affair, but I'd much prefer seeing the defense lock down. Drew Brees and that passing attack have been playing extremely well, even when the defense has struggled.
The key, in my mind, will be once again bringing the heat and getting pressure on Brees. Sacks would be great, but even just getting hits on Brees and consistent pressure to force some hurries is a big step in the right direction.
And on that note, I took a few minutes to chat with our Saints blog, Canal Street Chronicles, to get some quick thoughts on a few subjects for Sunday's game.
Niners Nation: The Saints got off to a rocky start this season, but seem to be back on track. Was the loss of Sean Payton something that just needed some time to get used to or is there another explanation for their resurgence the last few weeks? How is the coaching staff doing in this somewhat unprecedented situation?
Canal Street Chronicles: The loss of Sean Peyton was definitely a big blow to the team as you could expect. You just can't replace his presence, demeanor, or skill set on the sideline. The Saints have gotten back on track because the defense is starting to play better football and the running game is starting to emerge. You can account a good portion both Joe Vitt's return to the sideline and to the players having 6 weeks to adjust to the whirlwind.
NN: Darren Sproles was reportedly going to be active last week, but appeared to be a last minute scratch. What's his status, and what can the 49ers expect from the Saints rushing attack given the carousel of running backs?
CSC: The status of Sproles is really "unknown". I don't think the team will tip their hat until the last minute. I personally have had the same injury and can tell you though that he will not be effective for at least a few more weeks. I don't see him playing this week. If he does, he won't contribute very much other than being a decoy. The 49ers should expect to see Thomas, Ivory, & Ingram. They will all be trying to out do each other so they will certainly be running hard this week. Besides there is a little bit of a chip given the results of last years battle.
NN: The Saints passing attack seems to be as strong as ever. Does it remain mostly the same as previous years, or are there any notable differences with it?
CSC: It is the same attack, although I would say this year we posses less down the field speed. Brees is still Brees and will have the same success.
NN: The Saints defense is pretty brutal this season. Given the state of it, what are the strengths of the unit at this point?
CSC: Brutal? Hmm well which type of brutal are you referring to? The 0-4 brutal we all witnessed at the beginning of the season, or the the brutal defense that has shown up in the last month? If it is the latter, I would say the main strengths are the newly found defensive line pressure, Vilma & Lofton in the middle, and Malcolm Jenkins constant heroics in the secondary.
NN: Give us a final score prediction, and what player(s) would be the key to that prediction?
CSC: I'm going with Saints 35-28 over the 49ers. They key will be the Saints defense making one more play against Kaepernick/Smith than the 49ers defense make against Brees. A late quarter turnover by the defense will win the game.