No hype is necessary for this one.
The merits stand on their own: The New Orleans Saints (10-2) against the San Francisco 49ers (10-2) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the Saints looking to solidify their position as the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the 49ers knowing a loss significantly could hamper their chance to take the top seed for the playoffs.
It has all the makings of a regular season "playoff" game. Here are a few items on the Saints' checklist that could help them win it:
- The Saints offense has left a little meat on the bone lately. True, New Orleans has averaged 29 points per game over the last three (a defensive touchdown raises the average to 31) and has posted nine touchdowns, numbers that aren't shabby. But as much as New Orleans loves its kicker – Wil Lutz is having a Pro Bowl season, 27 of 31 on field goals – Lutz has had made field goals of 26, 22, 41, 42 and 45 yards in the last three games and, undoubtedly, New Orleans would rather be scoring touchdowns. The passing game against San Francisco's pass defense is a marquee game within the game. The Niners allow 134.2 passing yards per game, a phenomenally low number in today's NFL. Saints receiver Michael Thomas, the NFC Player of the Month for November, averages a league-leading 107.5 yards per game. San Francisco, with 45 sacks (and 24 turnovers forced) won't face a quarterback more able to handle pressure than Drew Brees. And if left tackle Terron Armstead is back in the lineup, that only should help New Orleans.
- Just because I said the Saints would like to not settle for field goals, doesn't mean they won't settle for field goals. Lutz is the Pro Bowl leading vote-getter at his position for a reason. This season, he has kicked two game-winners as time expired, scored all New Orleans' points in a 12-10 victory over Dallas, and kicked four field goals in the 26-18 win against Atlanta. If the game is close and Lutz is in position to win it – and this could be a close one, based on the offensive and defensive balance of both teams – the Saints like their chances.
- This doesn't change from week to week, but it bears special emphasis this week: New Orleans has to stop the run. The Niners run for 148 yards per game, second most in the NFL, and they average 33.3 attempts per game. It helps that they mostly have played with the lead, and it also helps that San Francisco has a couple of home-run backs in Matt Breida (109-542-1) and Raheem Mostart (92-539-3). New Orleans allows 88.6 rushing yards per game, third-fewest in the league. Linebacker Demario Davis (team-leading 88 tackles, seven for losses) has been phenomenal. Dissecting what the 49ers are trying to do is critical, and defensive tackles Malcom Brown and David Onyemata will have a big say in how much New Orleans is able to dictate terms.
- Davis draws double duty – along with some tag-team help from, perhaps, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, P.J. Williams, Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams – because he'll probably get some snaps covering tight end George Kittle. Kittle leads San Francisco with 54 catches for 687 yards and three touchdowns, totals amassed despite missing two games. He's another big-play threat and the best way to neutralize him is to harass his quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo only gets sacked twice a game, and that'll be a challenge for the Saints, who've totaled 40 this season. Defensive end Cam Jordan (13.5 sacks) had a career single-game high four against Atlanta, and fellow end Marcus Davenport (six sacks total, two sacks and two forced fumbles against Atlanta) gives New Orleans a good bookend. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is crafty with the blitzes, and that may be the best way to affect Garoppolo.