On the surface, Monday night’s game in San Francisco (ESPN, 8:30 ET) looks like the classic trap game for the New Orleans Saints.
It has all the elements. A seemingly easy game against a wounded opponent at a time when the Saints still might be celebrating their season-opening win against Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings. It’s on the West Coast. It’s on a national stage, where anything less than a decisive victory might not be good enough. There’s a short work week on the back side, with the Atlanta Falcons -- the one team that might be able to challenge the Saints in the NFC South -- playing at New Orleans in Week 3.
It all makes it very easy for the Saints to overlook the 49ers. I’m saying it’s not going to happen because, in this case, the trap is too obvious. Here are five reasons why:
1. Sean Payton and his coaching staff won’t let it happen. Yeah, the Saints won that big opener against the Vikings, but it wasn’t all that pretty. Payton and his staff are perfectionists, and they didn’t see many signs of perfection against Minnesota. There were things to be fixed and the extra time off has given the coaching staff more time to work. If there’s going to be a letdown game for the Saints, it’s not going to be in a game like this. The Atlanta game actually might be a better candidate.
Payton has preached to his players that they shouldn’t take the 49ers lightly just because San Francisco got thumped, 31-6, by Seattle in the opener.
“When you’re playing a team that’s coming off a tough loss, you know that they’ll be ready, especially when they’re opening up at home on Monday night in a prime-time game,’’ Payton said.
2. The Saints know how to play in prime time. We’ll let Payton explain that.
“This will be the fifth game in a row now that we’ve been on in prime time, going back to Arizona, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Minnesota again and now Monday night. Our guys have gotten used to that,’’ Payton said. “I think more important is the weather, the wind, some of the logistics of playing on the road, more than just the fact that you’re playing in front of a national TV audience.”
3. The weather, the wind and the logistics won’t be a problem. Sure, San Francisco can be a tough place to play. Wind and rain often are factors there and going to the West Coast is never easy. The Saints left Saturday afternoon and will spend Sunday adjusting to the time difference. But this is a team that has learned how to handle travel. In recent years, the Saints have gone to London and evacuated home when hurricanes have approached. The impact of the travel might be a worry on the back end, with the Saints facing a short week to get ready for Atlanta. But travel shouldn’t be a problem on the front end of this trip.
As far as the possibility of wind and rain, yeah, you can make the case that the Saints are a dome team and are built around a passing game. But I’ll make the case that they’ve become a well-rounded team that can adjust its style of play to fit the circumstances, if necessary. If they need to run the ball to win, they'll do it. If they have to win with defense, they're capable of doing it.
“If you’re playing that schedule, you’re probably on a team that has had success,’’ Payton said. “I would say that certainly our players understand the challenges that come with some of those dates and some of those times.”
4. Mike Singletary might have done the Saints a huge favor by saying the 49ers will handle Drew Brees. The coach of the 49ers simply might have been trying to show confidence in his defense. But the NFL isn’t much different than high school in some regards. You can bet that quote has been waved under the noses of the Saints in an effort to fire them up.
5. The bottom line is the Saints are the better team. Brees vs. Alex Smith? Come on, I don’t care if there’s heavy lake-effect snow coming off the Bay and the wind is blowing at 70 mph. I’ll still take a team led by Brees, even if he has to hand off 50 times.