The last time the 49ers were in the Big Easy, they were this close to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Alas, that endeavor fell short, as San Fran departed for the West Coast empty-handed after a 34-31 Super Bowl loss. Despite this failure, the 2013 forecast was bright for the Niners, as the team believed it had found a franchise player in Colin Kaepernick, and with most of the integral components returning, were tabbed as NFC favorites.
New Orleans’ projection was not as auspicious. Granted, the organization was welcoming back head coach Sean Payton from his year-long sabbatical, and any team with Drew Brees at the helm would be formidable. Yet, on the surface, the Saints did little to shore up a defense that surrendered a league-high 440.1 yards per game, whereas the team’s primary adversary, Atlanta, brought in high-profile acquisition Steven Jackson. Even the most optimistic Who-Dat fan would concede a Wild Card position was likely a lofty ambition.
However, as the 2013 campaign enters Week 11, it’s the Saints that are riding high and the Niners that are searching for answers. This battle between NFC titans serves as our FOX NFL Game of the Week.
Five Things to Watch: New Orleans Saints
Click here for a preview on the San Francisco 49ers
Matchup Watch: Saints running game versus Niners front seven
Dormant for the first half of the year, Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles exploded last Sunday night against the Cowboys, combining for 244 rushing yards and three trips to pay dirt. Better yet, this trio added 115 yards and two touchdowns in the receiving game. Given the Saints entered as one of the worst terrain assaults in the league, and that said production came against a Dallas defense giving up a league-high 439.8 yards, the output has to be viewed as an aberration at the moment.
The soil prowess will be put to the test on Sunday against a San Francisco resistance that is suffocating opponents to a mere 316.8 yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL. The Niners have been particularly stringent versus the run, conceding just 105.1 yards per outing. With San Fran slowly bringing back some of its hurt stars, as well as the return of Aldon Smith from his substance-abuse sabbatical, the best could be yet to come for this unit.
New Orleans remains a pass-happy attack, yet the backfield contributions in the running and receiving arenas are vital to keeping the opposition honest. Whoever wins this matchup will likely dictate the outcome of the game.
What’s up with Marques Colston?
Colston is coming off his best game of 2013, hauling in seven catches for 107 yards and a score. Stated above, this yield comes with a provision, as the Cowboys defense is something awful. Aside from last weekend’s endeavor, it’s been tough sledding for Colston, as the Saints wideout is averaging a career-low 56.1 yards per game. Worse, the 30-year-old has found the end zone just twice, a precipitous drop considering Colston had posted 58 touchdowns in his previous seven seasons.
A lack of targets has played a part in this reduction. Unfortunately, it’s not that Brees’ affinity with Jimmy Graham has siphoned these looks; rather, it’s been Colston’s inability to cause separation over the middle, historically one of his greatest attributes. Whether injuries or age are the cause remains to be seen.
Last week’s conquest does give hope that Colston is starting to turn the corner. Facing a tough San Francisco secondary won’t bestow the greatest of opportunities, yet Colston’s execution, or lack thereof, will go a ways in determining New Orleans’ success on Sunday.
Spotlight: Saints defense
“Magic” has been frequently used to describe the transformation of the New Orleans defense this year. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has energized a dormant resistance into one conceding a mere 18.1 points per game, fifth-best in the NFL. The biggest upgrade has been the performance of the secondary. Following last season’s concession of 292.6 yards per outing (second-worst in football), the Saints now rank third in the league, holding opponents to 199.9 yards per contest. Perennially overshadowed by the high-octane offense, the New Orleans D is making noise of its own.
Speaking of Ryan…
The pairing of Ryan and New Orleans is a gift from the gridiron gods
What other city would facilitate the Wolfman brewing it up with fans after a victory? Even if the Saints fail to win the Super Bowl, I demand Ryan be given his own float during Mardi Gras. He’s the real-life, proactive version of “The Dude.” If that’s not cause for celebration, I’m not sure what is.
The Saints win if…
Kaepernick fails to secure the pigskin, Graham is able to find room to roam over the middle, the Saints show highlights of Jim Harbaugh losing his mind on the holding no-call that ended last year’s Super Bowl on the Jumbotron…
I think San Fran’s latent offense awakes from its slumber, yet I’m not going against Brees in the Big Easy…
Prediction: Saints 33, 49ers 31
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall