1. Venue matters. The Saints have the hottest offense in the NFL right now, but the chilly San Francisco air could improve the 49ers' chances of cooling down Drew Brees. New Orleans averaged 41.1 points per game at home this season and 38 points per game in 11 total indoor games. The Saints played five outdoor games and averaged 23.8 points per game in the four most recent ones. They barely won at Tennessee (22-17) and lost at Tampa Bay (26-20) in their two most recent non-dome games. The 49ers have allowed 10 total points in their past three home games, albeit against limited offenses (Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Arizona). Turnovers were a problem at times for the Saints in their wild-card victory over Detroit. The 49ers led the NFL in takeaways with 38 (the Saints had 16). They led the NFL in fewest giveaways with 10 (the Saints had 19). Turnover margin is especially critical in this game because the Saints have so much horsepower on offense.
2. Season comes full circle. The 49ers' first exhibition game under new coach Jim Harbaugh turned into a debacle when the Saints overwhelmed Alex Smith and San Francisco's offensive line with constant pressure. Chatter after the game suggested Saints coach Sean Payton might have gone into the game determined to show up Harbaugh. Some of the postgame buzz in the Bay Area suggested Harbaugh might be in over his head early in the season. The fact is, the 49ers faced long odds playing a game so quickly after the lockout ended. They've known for weeks New Orleans would likely stand in their way at some point during the postseason. Expect a solid plan from Harbaugh, Greg Roman and the rest of the 49ers' offensive staff.
3. Patrick Willis in the spotlight. The 49ers' perennial All-Pro linebacker has waited five regular seasons for his first playoff game. He was a little rusty in Week 17 after returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him most of December. The 49ers will need Willis to be at his best. This needs to be a signature game for him. With fellow All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman making plays sideline to sideline, Willis has focused more on defending opposing tight ends this season. He helped limit Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew to a 5.3-yard average on eight receptions when the 49ers handed the Lions their first defeat of the season. I'm not sure how the 49ers plan to defend Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Willis will presumably play a role.