— The 49ers and Saints will share a field Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, but they aren’t playing the same game.
The Saints have evolved into the 21st century video game version of a football team. They are an extension of their quarterback. Drew Brees holds the controller, and the entire team is built around his skills.
Saints coach Sean Payton prizes continuity and smarts from his offensive players. He doesn’t just look for the best players; he looks for the best players that fit with Brees. Payton wants receivers that know exactly what Brees thinks when he sees certain coverages. Forget 40 times; the Saints value running backs that can catch, block, and line up in a variety of formations. Pierre Thomas isn’t the most skilled runner in the league, but he will never have to buy a beer again in New Orleans because he’s a great Brees sidekick.
New Orleans throws the ball in any game situation, any down and distance. They rank second in the NFL in pass attempts and 20th in rushing attempts despite mostly playing with the lead. They always attack, assuming that no lead or record is safe until the game ends. It’s a game that would be unrecognizable to Vince Lombardi.
Even the Saints defense is built around Brees. While New Orleans spends huge money on Brees’ offensive linemen, the team saves under the cap with an opportunistic defense. New Orleans knows it’s impossible to build a complete team in the salary cap era, so they really don’t try. This is the old Colts model. The job of the Saints defense is to be aggressive and opportunistic to set up Brees.
The Saints will give up points, but their job is to make a few big plays. It’s like the Arena League. If the defense can just get a few stops, the offense should do the rest.
While the Saints are PlayStation 3, the 49ers are playing Atari.
The quarterback in San Francisco is almost incidental. Alex Smith is just a cog in the greater machine. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh arrived from Stanford, took a look at his roster, and played to its strengths. San Francisco won 13 games and earned the NFC’s No. 2 seed by turning back the clock to the 1970’s.
San Francisco is built around defense first, and the running game second. Harbaugh views football as a disciplined war of attrition. He knows that his team will win most weeks if they avoid mistakes and dominate in the trenches. Simple.
The 49ers talk about balance on offense, but balance in 2011 means running the ball like crazy. They play it safe. Alex Smith threw for the fewest interceptions-per-pass of any quarterback in the league.
Harbaugh still shows off some modern flourishes within the framework of San Francisco’s smashmouth style. His formations and creativity with extra blockers in the running game looks more like a college running attack. He makes defenses prepare for a lot, and he will call a handful of “shot plays” designed to give Smith simple reads for potential big gainers on offense. The defense is also difficult to prepare for because they are so talented and fundamentally sound.
In an era where coaches are often too stuck in their prescribed system, Harbaugh puts his players in positions to succeed. He could coach a more modern offense, but it wouldn’t suit his roster. Sean Payton could stop throwing so aggressively, but wouldn’t make sense for a team led by Drew Brees. Neither man is worried about convention, which is a good thing. Great coaching is above all adaptable.
The Saints are favored in San Francisco. This is largely because football fans are easily impressed with flashy numbers. The Saints look like a team built to win in 2012. Or 2022. If New Orleans does win, they might face Green Bay and New England next. Those are two more elite teams where quarterbacks rule all and defense is a rumor.
The 49ers aren’t just trying to win a playoff game Saturday for a starved, once-proud franchise.
They are fighting to prove that their style of football can work in any era.
PLAYERS WITH MOST TO GAIN
1. Eli Manning, Giants: They say you can’t improve pocket presence, but Manning has come a long way in his career at handling pressure. He’s great delivering passes with players in his face. A huge upset in Green Bay would help cement Manning as one of the game’s very best quarterbacks during a career year.
2. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Frank Gore, 49ers: Smith and Gore are two of the most underrated players of the last decade. They are looking for their first playoff win. So is Willis. He is the very best at his position and is on his way to a Hall of Fame-type career, but too many people have barely seen him play.
3. Brian Cushing, Texans: Perhaps people will notice who the best inside linebacker on the field is Sunday in Baltimore. Cushing is the emotional leader of a still-overlooked Texans defense.
4. Robert Meachem and Marques Colston, Saints: The soon-to-be free agent wideouts for the Saints can make some money with a big playoff run.
5. Ryan Grant, Packers: He represents all the injured Packers from a year ago that only could watch their team win it all. Grant has possibly played his way into another year in Green Bay with a strong finish to the season.
6. Tim Tebow, Broncos: The guy needs more attention.
PLAYERS WITH MOST TO LOSE
1. Tom Brady, Patriots: This game means so much to the Patriots. A third straight playoff defeat at home would be devastating for Brady. He seems more driven then ever at age 34, almost like he wants another title too much. He knows the Patriots can’t be No. 1 seeds forever.
2. Ray Lewis, Ravens: He says this team is more complete than the 2000 Ravens. Terrell Suggs says this is easily the best Ravens team he’s played on. The Ravens are set up well to make another Super Bowl appearance, but this is a different role for them in the playoffs: Home favorites.
3. Joe Flacco, Ravens: If he thought the media didn’t give him credit before, try losing to a fifth-round rookie quarterback at home.
4. Charles Woodson, Packers: Woodson said it during the week. Two straight titles would put the Packers at a different level historically. This team seems very aware of how close it is to being an all-time great.
5. Sean Payton, Saints: It’s not particularly fair, but the Saints’ winning streak has left many in New Orleans feeling that anything short of a Super Bowl title this year will be a massive disappointment.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
1. Jason Pierre-Paul versus Chad Clifton
Green Bay did a decent job protecting Aaron Rodgers in the first matchup against the Giants with one huge exception. Jason Pierre-Paul absolutely manhandled left tackle Marshall Newhouse all day.
Now Chad Clifton is back after taking only 25 snaps in Week 17. He hasn’t played a full game since Week 4. It’s a tall task to ask Clifton to hold up against JPP on the outside. Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga is also coming back from an injury and will be tested by New York’s pass rush.
2. Patriots tight ends versus Broncos safeties
Denver double-teamed Rob Gronkowski all day last time around, so Aaron Hernandez went off for nine catches and 129 yards. New England exposed the youth at safety and the lack of depth in Denver’s secondary last time. I doubt they found a solution in the meantime.
3. Texans offensive line versus Ravens front seven
Houston’s run blocking may be the best in football. Baltimore’s front seven led by Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata may be the toughest group in the league. The Texans didn’t get good push in Baltimore on the ground the first time these teams played. They need to win this matchup for a chance on Sunday.
4. San Francisco versus the blitz
The 49ers showed great difficulty identifying blitzing defenders in matchups against Dallas, Baltimore, and Arizona this year. They seemed to clean this up against the Steelers, but Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will test Alex Smith. The 49ers don’t have many wideouts that can win one-on-one so expect to see a lot of pressure on Smith.
5. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil versus the Patriots tackles
Patriots tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer have struggled with injuries at times this year. Guard Logan Mankins also isn’t 100%. The Patriots held up fairly well the first time around, largely by getting rid of the ball quickly. If the Broncos pull off the upset Saturday night, it will be largely because Miller and Dumervil dominate.
THINGS I LEARNED FROM REGULAR-SEASON MATCHUPS
Packers at Giants
1. These teams look very evenly matched. They were separated by two yards in the game. The Giants actually averaged 7.3 yards-per-play, while the Packers controlled the clock and only averaged 5.8 yards-per-play.
2. The Giants receivers won their one-on-one matchups on the outside. Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams took turns on Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. New York won the majority of the time.
3. New York hit three plays over 50 yards. The Packers had only one play over 25 yards. The Giants made Green Bay work down the field slowly, which is the best you can hope for.
Part of the reason the Giants hit big ones: Green Bay’s blitz did not get home. Zone didn’t work and man coverage didn’t work. Don’t be surprised if the Packers back off some Sunday.
4. Ultimately, Green Bay won in New York because their stars were better. Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Clay Matthews all made sensational plays to win the game. Rodgers completed a number of tough throws into tight windows.
5. The Giants linebackers and safeties had no answer for Jermichael Finley. He dropped a few or his day would have been enormous. The Giants’ linebackers in general are a problem in coverage.
6. The Giants were far more effective on the ground than Green Bay. They averaged over five yards-per-carry, although the Packers were missing their two inside linebackers. The Packers offensive line, meanwhile, gave up a ridiculous amount of penetration in the running game. Linval Joseph was dominated for the Giants up front. Green Bay’s running backs rushed for 57 yards on 24 carries.
7. I came away from this tape thinking the Packers will have to be at their best to win this week, even in Lambeau Field. The Giants may be the toughest matchup for Green Bay left in the field. Really.
Patriots at Broncos
1. New England never solved the Broncos running attack. Denver averaged 8.1 yards-per-carry and totaled 252 yards on the ground. The offense slowed down in the second half, but that was because Tim Tebow had to throw too often.
2. The Broncos did a great job outflanking the Patriots defense on runs. They sealed the edge very easily, which shouldn’t happen against a Bill Belichick-coached defense.
3. Denver can’t survive stupidity. The three turnovers were bad enough, but they also made mental errors and big penalties to extend Patriots drives.
This didn’t look like a physical mismatch of a game. Denver had 218 yards in the first quarter alone, but the Broncos weren’t mentally ready for the Patriots. This is the old Patriots model: Let the other team beat itself.
4. The Broncos never solved the Patriots hurry up attack. They couldn’t get the right personnel on the field and they couldn’t just line up and cover the Patriots.
New England did a good job mitigating the Denver pass rush with quick throws, but Tom Brady’s protection also held up for the most part when he took more time.
5. Even though Tim Tebow’s numbers were solid, he really struggled throwing on third and long. Despite Tebow’s success last week, the Patriots will surely make him beat them with his arm.
Texans at Ravens
1. The Ravens blitzed Matt Schaub with impunity. Imagine what they will do with T.J. Yates. While Andre Johnson wasn’t active for the first game, Baltimore simply wasn’t afraid of Houston beating the Ravens deep. Yates is going to need to throw in this game.
2. The Texans aren’t going to win unless they can run the ball more effectively. Arian Foster was held to 49 yards on 15 carries and was stuffed in a crucial fourth down situation. Ray Rice finished with over 100 yards and the Ravens ran effectively inside.
If the Ravens are the better running team Sunday, this game won’t be close. Baltimore’s interior offensive linemen were especially good.
3. Joe Flacco was hit a lot, with free rushers were coming at him often. The left side of his line (Bryant McKinnie, Andre Gurode) looked old and slow. Flacco delivered big plays while he was hit, but the Texans will take their chances that won’t happen again.
4. The Texans did a nice job with misdirection on their 32-yard score to Jacoby Jones. They are going to have to take advantage of Baltimore’s aggressiveness and throw against it. Yates will have to hit some big plays for Houston to stay around.
5. Baltimore hit two 50-yard plus plays, both with receivers getting behind safety Danieal Manning. Anquan Boldin beat Johnathan Joseph quite a bit in the game. I doubt Boldin is healthy enough to do the same Sunday.
6. The Texans were somewhat fortunate to keep it close in the first game. The same will be true Sunday: Houston has a lot working against them.