49ers may have answer for Saints

BY Peter Schrager • January 10, 2012

The New Orleans Saints are bullies.

They’re not the “stuff you in a locker, rough you up a bit, give you a wedgie in the locker room” kind of bullies we knew and feared in high school. They’re the “embarrass you in front of the entire class, talk down to you when you’re at your most vulnerable, and gloat about it afterwards” kind of bullies that were even worse.

To the great delight of fantasy football owners, Vegas bettors (New Orleans is 13-4 overall and 9-0 at home against the spread this season) and lovers of endless fireworks shows everywhere, the Saints have blown out opponents, used the deep pass when up 20 points in the fourth quarter and have kept the pedal on the medal all season — regardless of the score — with no apologies or regret.

In short, they’ve thrown conventional football “etiquette” out the window, and because it’s just so damn fun to watch, they’ve gotten away with it with very little resistance.

“Don’t like it? Then, stop it,” seems to be their motto.

And in a 2011 season that saw the NFL single-season record for 20-point comebacks broken by October, you can’t really blame them. No lead is a safe lead in today’s NFL, and the Saints — as 1990’s Steve Spurrier as it may seem — have no shame in punishing their opponents through the air for the full 60 minutes, regardless of the story on the scoreboard.

The 2011 San Francisco 49ers are the Saints’ foils.

Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team is more suited for the league’s leather-helmet era than the one they’re playing in today. Despite rules greatly favoring the passing game and big scoring, San Francisco won 13 games by going back to football’s most basic strategies: controlling the line of scrimmage, owning the time of possession game, dominating in special teams and defense and limiting turnovers on offense.

Watching the 49ers bleed a clock on offense or stuff an opponent at the point of attack on defense for four quarters is the NFL’s equivalent of a daytime matinee of the movie “Pleasantville.” Yeah, we know they’re from the present, but it sure feels like their games should be broadcasted in black and white.

The Saints have had no problems in their nationally televised, primetime games played in the Superdome this year. In the five games played in their building on primetime this year, the Saints beat the Colts 62-7, the Giants 49-24, the Lions 31-17, the Falcons 45-16 and the Lions 45-28. That’s an average of a 28-point margin of victory, and roughly 70 “This guy’s” from ESPN’s Jon Gruden.

But, like any bully, New Orleans has its own deep-rooted issues that it is covering up, too. In road games played outdoors this season, New Orleans went just 3-2, with an average margin of victory of 1.4 points. When the Saints weren’t indoors, they looked like an altogether different team, with lower point totals, a depleted passing game and less overall swagger.

Though the weather’s supposed to be sunny and 60 degrees on Saturday in Northern California, the 49ers will be playing in their first home playoff game since 2002. This won’t be the Superdome. It might not be the Saints America’s expecting, either.

There’s something else at play, here, too. Something that dates back to August, when Drew Brees’ record-breaking season and the 49ers’ big breakout year were still just glimmers in our eyes. It’s customary for two coaches to speak on the phone prior to an NFL preseason game. Though strategy is rarely discussed, it’s good form to at least be in agreement on the way the game will play out, the amount of quarters starters will play and what each team wants to accomplish. Before the Saints-49ers preseason clash this season, Sean Payton reportedly reached out and left a message with Harbaugh.

According to multiple reports, Harbaugh never returned Payton’s phone calls in the week leading up to both teams’ first preseason game.

Connect the dots however you’d like, but the Saints came out and employed full-on blitz packages throughout that August 14th meeting; a rarity for a preseason game. Keep in mind, the 49ers had just 17 days of training camp to install and learn Harbaugh’s offense due to the prolonged NFL lockout.

The Saints radio announcer, Jim Henderson, said on air the following week that Payton was “offended” by not having his calls returned by Harbaugh, and thus, advised defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to “let the dogs out" on the 49ers offense. Sure enough, the Saints sacked San Francisco’s quarterbacks six times and both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick were roughed up nearly every time they went back to pass. The 49ers did not get a first down on their first four series, three of which were thwarted by big hits on Smith.

On Monday afternoon, 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley recalled, “We kind of went back to the bench and said, 'Why are they doing this? We've had, like, a week and a half to prepare.’ We played them in the preseason before and they never did that. I don't know why they chose that game."

Bullies.

Outdoors, on the road and against an old-school team from a bygone era, I don’t see the Saints escaping this one with a victory. The 49ers might not be the popular pick and their approach to football may not win any popularity contests, but there are no class superlatives in the trenches.

Give me Harbaugh’s 49ers, the first home underdogs in a Divisional Round game since 1996, in an ugly, low-scoring affair.

Just the way they like it.

The Pick: 49ers 20, Saints 16

Now, as for the rest of the Divisional Round Cheat Sheet, let's dig in:

2011 Regular-Season Record: 170-86

2011 Postseason Record: 3-1

Saturday’s Games:

New Orleans at San Francisco: (See Above)

The Pick: 49ers, 20, Saints 16

Denver at New England: Immediately after Tim Tebow’s game-winning, 80-yard touchdown pass nearly single-handedly broke Twitter last Sunday night, I tried bringing the same intensity to the episode of “60 Minutes” that followed.

Unfortunately, typing SCOTT PELLEY in caps lock and using multiple exclamation points after the words “Illegal, international black market stem cell trading” didn’t have quite the same effect as going bonkers over Denver’s second-year quarterback. My #LeslieStahlisStahlinnnn! hash tag died a quick death.

If Tebow does it again this weekend in Foxborough, I think the Internet may just shut down. Guess what? He might. The last time a team was favored by this many points (13.5) in an NFL playoff game, it was the 2007 AFC Championship when the Chargers were 14.5-point underdogs at the 17-0 Patriots. But that Chargers team didn’t have Tebow under center. Laugh all you want, but the Broncos had a near-perfect gameplan against the Steelers last weekend and the New England defense has more holes than a stack of Swiss cheese singles.

If Tebow can limit the turnovers — he had two costly fumbles in their Week 15 matchup — this one could be a game heading into the fourth quarter. And if you let the Broncos hang around, well, you know what could happen.

In the end, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will find a way to break their confounding three-game postseason losing streak and will finally (for now) put “Tebow Mania” to rest. Maybe, just maybe, "Scott Pelley Mania" can get started shortly thereafter.

The Pick: Patriots 27, Broncos 20

Sunday’s Games:

Houston at Baltimore: Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and coach John Harbaugh are all 4-3 all time in the NFL playoffs, but have shockingly never played or coached in a postseason game in Baltimore. The Ravens were unbeatable in their stadium this year, going 8-0 with wins over league heavyweights Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Houston.

The Ravens fans haven’t seen a playoff game in their city since 2006 and will be ready to go from the very start.

The Texans had a nice run and last week was a good win for the franchise. They’re going to get blown out badly in this one.

The Pick: Ravens 34, Texans 6

New York Giants at Green Bay: Before the 2007 playoffs began, I went on record and said the Giants would make a miracle run through the playoffs and would beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It was chalked up by readers as just another “Look at me! I’m different!” prediction. A year earlier, after slipping in the first round of the NFL Draft, I said quarterback Matt Leinart would go on to win not one, but two MVP awards in Arizona. Sure enough, it happened: The Giants’ run; not Leinart’s MVPs.

The similarities from this year’s Giants team to that one can’t be ignored. The Giants are peaking at the right time, the pass rush is relentless, the run game is suddenly showing a pulse and the path to the Lombardi Trophy is awfully similar.

When Aaron Rodgers takes his first snap on Sunday night, it’ll be 21 days since the last time he had run a play in an NFL game. I think the Giants get to him early and rattle the reigning league MVP with a few bit hits as this game goes down to the wire.

I picked the Packers to win it all in August, and stuck by that prediction last week, but I can’t pick against this Giants team right now. Call me crazy. It certainly won’t be the first time.

The Pick: Giants 37, Packers 31
 



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