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49ers-Saints: What does this game mean to the 49ers?

My new favorite phrase is that "I know the 49ers are not bad, but I don't quite know yet if they are good (or how good I suppose)."  The team is 2-1 with an improved offense, but the two wins came against a god-awful Lions team and a beaten down Seahawks team.

That has led to an increased discussion of how much this Sunday's game means or doesn't mean in the grand scheme of things.  If I'm just thinking in terms of overall wins and losses and a more number oriented approach, I'd think any win is a good win.  If 9-7 could get this team into the playoffs (a very real possibility), does it really matter which 9 games you win?  Of course not.

On the other side of the coin is the idea of momentum.  The 49ers have won two straight and a win at New Orleans would give them some incredible momentum (as well as their first 3-game winning streak since 2006).  Considering the opponents following this weekend, we could use all the momentum we can get.

So, with that in mind, I thought I'd throw out some reasons why this game is not any bigger than any other, and why it's the biggest in some time.  While there are various tweaks on the arguments, for the most part people seem to fall in one of the two camps.

Why this game is not more important than any other game
1. The Saints are banged up like the Seahawks were so we're getting them at a lucky time.  They'll be missing Shockey, Colston and possibly Patten among others (to be discussed more later today).  We can't claim any sort of great win against a team playing short-handed.

2. As previously stated, a win is a win is a win and each game is as important as the next (insert any other cliches here that you would like).

3. Even if a win leads to more national press coverage as mentioned below, who cares what the national media thinks.

Why this game is more significant than most
1. A road win at a usually popular Saints team would give the 49ers some serious national credibility.  For now, people see the 49ers as 2-1 and think they're the cute little upstart that will fade into Bolivia (to quote Mike Tyson).  However, a win at New Orleans though and the national critics are suddenly hopping on OUR bandwagon.

2. The team has struggled mightily in the recent past against the Saints and particularly Reggie Bush.  If they can get over this hump, it's reasonable to think they could gain even more confidence.  This goes to the momentum argument in the boost the team could take from such a win.

3. No matter who they roll out their on offense, the Saints will provide a stern test for the 49ers defense thanks to Reggie Bush and Drew Brees.  The defense showed some solid improvements against the Lions in shutting down their passing game.  Reggie Bush presents a unique threat, and if they can shut him down, all the more respect.

Where do I fit in this whole paradigm?  Shockingly enough, somewhere in the middle, although leaning towards the importance of this particular game.  While I try not to get too high over a single game, I am a big believer in momentum.  While momentum doesn't win football games, I think the confidence from that momentum can help.  A 3-1 49ers team that is 2-0 on the road suddenly thinks, "Hey, we won at one of the toughest road trips in the league (Seattle), we shut down one of the best receiving duos and we beat the all-world Reggie Bush...there ain't nothing that can stop us."

So maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but hopefully you get the point.  Aside from momentum, 3-1 is certainly a lot better than 2-2.  Given the stretch of schedule they've got coming up before the bye week, the 49ers certainly need every win they can get.

So where do you fall?  Is this a huge game for the 49ers or just another tough game they would love to win?  One reason I don't like getting too high about one game is that if they lose, and particularly if they lose big, it can be a crushing blow.  However, I do think it is reasonable to anticipate this particular game more than you might normally anticipate a game.