49ers players to watch, and a theory

The San Francisco 49ers opened their 13-3 season with a mostly dominant defensive performance against the Seattle Seahawks.

Ray McDonald's performance that day -- six tackles, including three for losses, plus a sack -- served notice the team had made the right call in paying starter money to the former backup defensive lineman. McDonald finished the season with career highs for starts (15) and sacks (5.5). He forced two fumbles, both in the final five weeks of the season.

Pete Prisco from CBSSports.com singled out McDonald as an under-the-radar player to watch for the 49ers against New Orleans in the divisional playoff round Saturday. This is a good call among several possibilities. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson aren't quite under-the-radar players -- both are headed to the Pro Bowl -- but neither commands as much attention as established stars Patrick Willis or Justin Smith.

Rogers and Goldson showed a big-play flair during the regular season. Rogers set a career single-season high with six interceptions, only two fewer than he collected during six previous NFL seasons. Goldson's six interceptions were also a career high. He had five in four seasons previously.

K.C. Joyner, who made friends on the NFC West blog by calling them potential playoff pretenders two months ago, thinks the 49ers will have ample opportunities to force turnovers against the Saints. A little pressure from McDonald and friends would help Rogers, Goldson and the secondary, of course.

Joyner, writing for Insider subscribers, cites evidence suggesting Drew Brees' willingness to take chances could cost him against the 49ers' defense. Counter to intuition, he says the 49ers might be best served getting into a higher-scoring game with New Orleans.

Joyner notes that the 49ers scored at least 20 points in every home game this season. He says the Saints usually gave up that many or more on the road, and turnovers have often played a role. Brees has a 7-25 starting record when the Saints give up at least 20 points and lose the turnover battle. San Francisco tied an NFL record with only 10 turnovers this season.

I was also interested in a historical reference Joyner made in tying the Saints to other teams that set offensive records during the regular season. They run counter to the idea that New Orleans would automatically benefit from a wide-open game.