If Saints gets past Lions, bring 'em on

The San Francisco 49ers have been holding firm at No. 3 in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings.

If that continues when the new rankings come out later Tuesday, the 49ers will have improved 23 spots from where they stood in voters' eyes entering Week 1. They are arguably the most surprising team this season.

Another surprise, depending on your point of view: One of the independent analytical tools ESPN cites to project playoff participants and game winners likes the 49ers' chances against New Orleans if the Saints advance to the divisional round.

The projections, available to Insider subscribers, come from numberFire's Nik Bonaddio and Keith Goldner, who outline their mission as follows:

"We take in the statistics, we look at what they really mean and we come up with our own internal metrics for how good teams and players really are. Once we have that, we look at each game and simulate it, using historical comparables as the starting point. This gives us what is actually a very accurate glimpse into the future. It also gives you as the reader plenty of opportunities to tell us where you think we're wrong."

We'll let Saints fans worry about where the model might be wrong in these specific projections. Regarding the 49ers, Bonaddio and Goldner credit their rushing defense for preventing 40 points that an average defense would have allowed.

The Saints and Packers are primarily passing teams, so I'm not sure the 49ers' strength against the run would come into play as much. But if smart people appreciate the 49ers' chances despite all the momentum New Orleans has generated in recent weeks, let's roll with it. Not that 49ers fans are worried.