The five-time Super Bowl champions are back in the postseason for the first time in nine years, and they have their hard-hitting, run-stuffing defense to thank.
Their opponent in Saturday’s NFC divisional matchup at Candlestick Park thrives on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Drew Brees set a new NFL record with 5,476 passing yards to lead a potent New Orleans Saints offense that averaged more than 34 points per game during the regular season.
The 49ers allowed 20 few points than that per game (14.3) — good for second in the league behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. They did not allow a team to score 30 points all season, but they also have yet to face an offense like this.
Clearly, something’s gotta give.
Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice are names associated with San Francisco’s golden years in the 1980’s and early 90’s. But this year’s team has a far different look. None of the team’s five All-Pro selections play on the offensive side of the ball. Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, defensive tackle Justin Smith, kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee are fitting choices to represent a team that thrives in low-scoring, grind-it-out contests.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Willis said. “We know that and I’m sure they know that as well. They’re going to do what they need to do to prepare to come in to play against us and we’re going to do the same (thing). We’ll see where the chips lay when the game is over, but we’re certainly going to come with everything we have. It’s either win or go home.”
The Saints have been considerably less prolific outside of the Superdome this season, posting a modest 5-3 record and averaging 27.3 points per game. They played only five games in the open air, and the weather in San Francisco — with temperatures predicted to be in the 50s — is far from what they’re used to.
But that won’t stop Brees and company from airing it out the way they’ve done all season.
“We always go into every game with an aggressive mentality,” Brees said. “We’re going to be balanced, but within the framework of that we’re going to take our shots. We’re going to throw the kitchen sink at everybody with our tempo, personnel groups, formations, running the ball, outside, drop-back pass, bootlegs, heavy play-action, everything. But within the framework of that, you understand, especially early on, you check it down, move on.”
The 49ers hope to force plenty of check downs and a slower tempo, as they look to prove that even in an offensive year, defenses still get the job done when it counts.
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