No game will provide a better litmus test for the Saints than Sunday’s matchup with the San Francisco 49ers.
Everyone remembers the gut-wrenching divisional-round playoff defeat to the 49ers two years ago.
Forgotten in the Saints’ lost season of 2012 without coach Sean Payton is that they found their rhythm before San Francisco came to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Week 12. They had won five of six to climb back to .500 after an 0-4 start and controlled their playoff destiny at kickoff.
But the 49ers kicked them right back into oblivion during one devastating stretch. With New Orleans ahead 14-7, linebacker Ahmad Brooks picked off a Drew Brees pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown just 22 seconds before halftime.
San Francisco coasted 80 yards in six plays on the opening possession of the third quarter to go ahead 21-14. Seconds later, safety Donte Whitner made it two Brees pick-sixes in as many throws, returning an interception 42 yards for a score.
The Saints never recovered. They lost 31-21, fell at Atlanta 23-13 the following Thursday as Brees tossed five more interceptions and disintegrated in a 52-27 defeat at the New York Giants to drop to 5-8.
A year later, New Orleans (7-2) is in much better position but still facing a pivotal game against the 49ers. Once again, the Saints have a short week ahead with a Thursday trip to Atlanta, and a home loss to San Francisco could send them in the wrong direction.
“There’s no bigger game than this one, especially based on the two previous meetings with this team, where they’ve had our number,” Brees said. “We need to play better and execute better all the way around.”
The two losses to San Francisco were different in many ways but strikingly similar in two respects. The Saints could not run the ball, gaining 37 yards on 14 carries in their 36-32 loss in the 2011 playoffs and managing 59 yards on 21 attempts last season. They also committed costly turnovers, losing the takeaway battle 5-1 the first time and giving up those defensive TDs in 2012.
“You can certainly look at it and say it’s a hurdle we have to clear,” said tackle Zach Strief, who missed last year’s matchup with a groin injury. “There’s a perception we can’t play a team like this, that we can’t play a physical team that runs the ball and plays good defense. It’s something we have to get over. The entire offseason here was built to beat a team like this. It was, ‘Let’s get after it more in the weight room, and let’s be more physical so we can play a team like this.’ ”
The 49ers (6-3) are using the same formula under third-year coach Jim Harbaugh, ranking sixth in the NFL in total defense, fourth in rushing and ninth in turnovers (18).
“We kind of owe them a couple of knockdowns,” guard Jahri Evans said. “We know it’s going to be physical. They know it’s going to be physical. It’s been physical every time we play them. With those guys winning the last couple, we definitely feel like we have to go out there and get the job done.”
With five 2013 Pro Bowlers on defense — Whitner, tackle Justin Smith, outside linebacker Aldon Smith and insider linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman — San Francisco presents problems for New Orleans that few teams can muster. The 49ers sacked Brees five times a year ago and have held their past six opponents to 71 points, an average of 11.8.
They provide a dramatic contrast to injury-riddled Dallas, which allowed an NFL-record 40 first downs and a Saints franchise record 625 yards in New Orleans’ 49-17 rout Sunday night.
“It’s a very good defense, the best we’ve played so far,” Payton said. “They’re physical. They have guys on the back end that are exceptional in coverage. The corners do a great job within that scheme. They’re well-coached. They create a lot of challenges with their ability to rush the passer and to stop your running game.”
The 49ers have struggled to throw in their three losses, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick getting sacked 12 times, failing to complete more than half of his passes and never cracking the 150-yard barrier against Seattle, Indianapolis and Carolina.
The running game remains strong, though. Frank Gore is sixth in the NFL with 700 rushing yards, and the Saints allow 5.0 yards per carry, tied with Kansas City for the league high.
“Everybody knows going into this game we’re going to have to stop the run,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “They are going to come off the bus running. You have to make a team beat you left-handed. If they’re good enough to do that (with Kaepernick passing), then hats off to them.”
Unlike in the playoffs two years ago, a loss to the 49ers will not end the Saints’ season. Not will it turn them into a playoff long shot, as it did last year.
Still, they know exactly how significant Sunday will be to their goal of winning the Super Bowl.
“They are NFC champions from last year,” Jenkins said. “When we think about what we want to accomplish, this is one of the teams we have to beat. They were on the top last year, this is an NFC opponent and it’s in our house. We have to get this win.”