The Saints are hosting the San Francisco 49ers (6-3) -- a physical team that's built to prey on the Saints' weaker points. And the 49ers have done exactly that, with victories over New Orleans in each of the past two seasons.
The Saints are the favorite heading into this game, and rightfully so. If they stay hot at home, the 49ers will have trouble keeping pace offensively. But the Saints need to make sure they don't turn the ball over and that they contain the 49ers' run game -- two things they couldn't do in their most recent loss against the New York Jets two weeks ago.
Here's what two watch for:
Brees busters? The last time Saints quarterback Drew Brees faced the 49ers (a 31-21 loss last year), he had a total quarterback rating of 26.2. That's his worst in any home game over the last three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Brees threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in that game, and he was sacked five times. In the 2011 playoff game (a 36-32 49ers victory), he threw two picks and was sacked three times.
Brees is certainly capable of performing against the 49ers -- as he showed with 462 yards and four touchdowns in a furious rally in that playoff game. But the Saints' offensive line has to protect him (something they've generally done well, except for a few hiccups against top defensive fronts). And Brees can't cough up the ball. The blueprint needs to be similar to New Orleans' patient, error-free victory at Chicago earlier this year.
'Monster' matchup: The 49ers haven't exactly shut down Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in the past two meetings (see his 66-yard touchdown catch in the playoff game). However, San Francisco has done a decent job against him, holding him to four catches for 33 yards last year. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers have been the second-best defense against tight ends in the NFL this year, based on total QBR (42.1).
Some teams have resorted to using their top cornerback against Graham this year. But San Francisco has plenty of options, from physical corners to athletic safeties and linebackers.
"They're very, very athletic in the back end. And not only that, but they have some of the most athletic linebackers in the game," Graham said. "Patrick Willis, he's a monster. He has the ability to truly cover tight ends one on one, and there's not many linebackers that can. He's really good at mirroring routes. And the reason he is, is because he watches so much film. He's such a smart player. He's very instinctive. He ends up running your route for you. So, I've got to go out and get up on him."
Containing the problem: Early in the season, the Saints defense was giving up some "leaky" rushing yards here and there. But it never really bit them until two weeks ago, when New York Jets running back Chris Ivory torched them for 139 yards, even though they knew it was coming.
Now, the Saints are in a similar situation. They know the 49ers will run the ball with running back Frank Gore and mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco ranks fourth in the NFL with 147.7 rushing yards per game and 32nd in with 173.9 passing yards per game.
But can they stop it?
"Man, you know, the proof's in the pudding," Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "But I'm not flinching on how we've done. We're not flinching there. …
"We weren't happy with the Jet game by any stretch. We had some missed assignments there, and early in the Dallas game, that were quickly fixed. So we'll see. I mean, sometimes teams spring some things on you, and you gotta adjust. And I think we've been able to do that -- and really including the Jet game. You know, we stopped and adjusted there, [but] probably a little late."