Last week, I wrote that the Rams game was do or die for the 49ers and their playoff hopes, largely because a matchup against the Saints in New Orleans is usually good for a loss no matter what team is playing them. Well, we all know how that Rams game turned out. Now, it truly is a must win game for San Francisco; a game the entire season hinges on. Win—hope and confidence are restored that the 49ers can compete with one of the league's better teams in a hostile environment. Lose and it's impossible to imagine the Niners coming away with more than 8 wins this year and Harbaugh returning next season. Based on what we've seen in 2014 from the Niners, the forecast is looking bleak at best.
As John Belushi's "Bluto" once famously said in National Lampoon's Animal House: My advice to you, is to start drinking heavily.
No Patrick Willis. No Aldon Smith. A questionable coverman like Chris Culliver trying to defend against Drew Brees. And just who the hell is going to cover Jimmy Graham?
The funny thing is, despite all the injuries and matchup issues the 49ers face on defense, it's the offense that induces nausea and makes this game an impossible one. Nobody would have faulted the Niners if their defense faltered this year. With Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman yet to take a snap, Patrick Willis out for the past several weeks with a toe injury, Tramaine Brock missing almost the whole season with turf toe so far, an almost entirely new secondary...the list goes on and on. But no. The 49ers unit ranks #2 in the league in overall defense. Sure, they got wiped by the Broncos, but on a short week, in Denver, with no help from a sputtering offense, and Peyton Manning eying the all-time touchdown record, who could blame them?
The offense, meanwhile—a unit largely healthy and loaded with talent—is a nightmare. They rank 18th in overall offense (which sounds way too high based on what you see on the field) and 21st in passing. The 27 sacks they've allowed is the third-most in the league. The 87 offensive drives they've had in 2014 is the fourth-lowest total in the league. Their yards-after-the-catch total is third-worst in the league. The entire offensive line played horrendous against St. Louis, surrendering more sacks in one game (a home game, mind you) than the Rams had tallied throughout the entire season. This is especially mind-numbing considering the the fact that everyone knew the Rams gameplan would be to load the box and aggressively rush Kaepernick, forcing him and the 49ers coaching staff to beat them with the quarterback's arm and quick decisions. Needless to say, the Niners couldn't and they never adapted their gameplan to find a counter attack.
Marcus Martin naturally took his lumps as a rookie center making his first start last weekend. Now, just a week later, he and the rest of that revolving-door of an o-line are tasked with going into a deafening dome against a Saints team on the rise. And God knows, Greg Roman and the offensive staff will do their best to help the young kid by getting plays in at the last minute, burning timeouts early, and possibly nabbing a few "delay of game" penalties, as that has been their calling card dating back to the Alex Smith days. Like Gregg Williams did last week, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is going to bring the house against Kaepernick and force him into sacks and bad decisions. Given how the 49ers coaching staff operates, there's nothing to suggest the team's offense can overcome this approach.
Considering all of the above, it takes a huge leap of faith and lapse in logic to expect anything but a loss in New Orleans—a bad one. People can call that a negative outlook; I call it being practical. Nothing the 49ers have shown this season gives any reason why someone should expect a win this weekend. Yes, the Niners will have the "must win" mindset going into the game, but after all the hoopla and disaster this organization has experienced in 2014, they may be more inclined to throw in the towel if things get out of hand early.
I'd love to be proven dead wrong on this one, but anyone with two eyes can see there are big problems with the 49ers these days from top to bottom, and the last thing a team with its season on the line wants is a trip to NOLA—where the ghosts of Super Bowl XLVII still loom large.