49ers, Saints clash in historic matchup

US Presswire

Drew Brees (left) and Alex Smith (right) will be under center Saturday in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.

The Bay Area will be buzzing this weekend when the San Francisco 49ers host the New Orleans Saints in the franchise’s first playoff game since the 2002 season.

The second-ranked 49ers defense, which allowed an average of 14 points per game, will face a formidable task in trying to slow the league’s hottest offense in this historic strength-versus-strength matchup.

The Saints, who finished the regular season second in the NFL at 34.2 points per game, gained a playoff-record 626 yards against the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card Playoffs and have scored at least 40 points in each of their last four games.

This is the first playoff game between an offense that averaged at least 34 points per game in the regular season and a defense that allowed fewer than 15 points per game since the 1950 NFL Championship, when the Rams (38.8 PPG) lost to the Browns (12.0 PPG allowed) 30-28.

When the Saints have the ball

Drew Brees wasn’t finished re-writing the record books when the regular season ended. Against the Lions he threw for 466 yards, the most ever in a regulation playoff game.

Passing 15+ Yards Downfield
2011 Regular Season

Brees torched the Lions with the deep ball, completing 6-of-9 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns when passing 15 yards or more downfield. Brees will be challenged to repeat those numbers on Saturday as he’ll face one of the toughest defenses on such throws in the NFL.

The 49ers defense has also excelled in getting to the quarterback, tied for seventh in the league with 42 sacks. However, Brees has been one of the hardest quarterbacks to take down this season. He’s been sacked once every 29 dropbacks, the best rate among qualified QBs.

When the 49ers have the ball

As good as the 49ers defense has been this season, their offense has been just as anemic, ranked 26th in total yards. According to Elias, no team has ever won a Super Bowl with an offense that finished outside the top 25 in the regular season.

Though Alex Smith was arguably more of a game-manager than a touchdown-maker this season, he was efficient against the blitz. Smith had the fifth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio and seventh-best completion percentage against five-or-more pass rushers this season.

Best TD-Int Differential
Facing 5+ Pass Rushers, This Season

That record of success for Smith will be critical against the Saints, who have used such pressure an NFL-high 51.3 percent of the time this season (including playoffs).

If Smith can’t move the ball through the air, the 49ers will likely turn to their workhorse running back, Frank Gore, who ran for over 1,200 yards this season. Gore picked up 62.8 percent of his rushing yards prior to initial contact, the fourth-highest rate among running backs with 200 rushes.

However, the Saints are one of the best tackling teams in the league and have a good chance to limit San Francisco’s ground game. Opposing rushers have gained just 53 percent of their yards before contact, the fourth-best rate in the NFL.

Stats of the game

The Saints are 0-4 all-time in road playoff games and with a loss will match the Cincinnati Bengals for the worst road playoff record in NFL history.

The 49ers are 18-8 in home playoff games. With a win they will match the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders for the second-most home playoff victories.