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: San Francisco 49ers
Click here for a preview on the New Orleans Saints
Can San Francisco get back on track?
It’s unfair to label the 49ers as a disappointment. If the season ended today, San Fran would earn a postseason berth and present as a daunting foe. Conversely, the Niners have seen an unexpected amount of obstacles in their path to the Meadowlands. San Francisco has struggled against playoff-caliber teams, getting embarrassed by Seattle and Indianapolis and losing a close struggle to Carolina last week. All-Pro Aldon Smith has missed the majority of the fall to deal with a substance-abuse problem. Both sides of the ball have seen a startling amount of injuries. These wounds have particularly been damaging to the receiving corps, evidenced in the unit’s league-low 187.6 yards per game. Of course, the latter’s issues are somewhat correlated to the quarterback, which leads to…
Spotlight: Colin Kaepernick
Promise, I’m not stating this to be a contrarian or to kindle reaction…but, isn’t it kind of odd that not a single media entity has questioned if the Niners traded the right quarterback last offseason? Think of the yield Kaepernick would have returned after his strong showing in the playoffs, and at 29, it’s not like Alex Smith is that old.
I guarantee you this: such a proposition has definitely crossed Jim Harbaugh’s mind. Since Kaepernick’s auspicious season opener (412 passing yards, three scores), the third-year arm has severely regressed, owning more turnovers (10) than touchdowns (nine). Kaepernick’s 56.4 completion percentage ranks 29th in the NFL and is a major drop-off from last season’s 62.4 mark. Even his terrain prowess has taken a hit, averaging 5.8 yards per rush compared to 2012’s 6.6 figure.
Certainly this is not entirely Kaepernick’s fault, as the offensive line and receiving corps have been dealing with injuries. Alas, don’t look for things to improve this weekend in the Big Easy. An energized New Orleans defense is relinquishing the third-fewest fantasy points to field generals this season, and it’s concession of 18.1 points is fifth-best in the NFL. Don’t be surprised if the tough sledding continues for another week.
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 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.
Wait, Patrick Willis filmed a commercial with Kenny Powers?
Admittedly, I’m like Ron Swanson in terms of memes, trends, fads and the like, which is a nice way of saying I’m completely in the dark. Still, how was I unaware that Willis, one of my favorite players to watch, shot a series of promos for K-Swiss back in the day with KP, one of the greatest TV characters of all-time? (By the way, this one was the only PG-rated clip I could show. If you’re so inclined, it’s not that hard to find WAY funnier commercials of the duo, albeit with more risqué content, on YouTube.)
The 49ers win if…
Kaepernick cuts down on his miscues, the Niners limit Graham’s production, Rob Ryan decides to party on Bourbon Street rather than attend the game…
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