If you watched the New Orleans Saints take apart the Detroit Lions at the Superdome, you know why it was so important that the 49ers play them at Candlestick Park.
The Saints have been unbeatable at home this season, playing on artificial turf in a domed stadium before adoring fans who fill the stadium with ear-splitting noise.
It will be a very different game and environment for the Saints on Sunday at Candlestick, and they’ll face a very different team, too. The Lions are talented, but undisciplined, reflecting the personality of their coach, Jim Schwartz. The 49ers reflect the personality of their coach, too, but Jim Harbaugh is all about discipline, as are his chief assistants, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, as well as special teams coach Brad Seely. The 49ers make the opposing teams earn everything, and they don’t beat themselves.
The NFL is full of spectacular offenses this year, but in the postseason, defense usually wins. Certainly, that’s been true for the 49ers. The four Joe Montana-led Super Bowl champions all had outstanding defenses. In 1984, Miami’s Dan Marino set NFL records for touchdown passes and yardage, but the 49ers won the Super Bowl 38-16.
This year, the 49ers’ defense and special teams have dictated the play of their opponents. TV commentator (and former winning Super Bowl quarterback) Phil Simms has picked the 49ers to win this game, saying, “The 49ers can turn a game ugly very quickly.”
To win this game, the 49ers defense has to continue playing at a high level. That will start with the defensive line stopping the run while still putting constant pressure on Drew Brees. The two Smiths, veteran Justin and rookie Aldon, will be especially important in that, but underrated outside linebacker Navarro Bowman and counterpart Ahmad Brooks are factors, too.
Their have been only two major lapses for the 49ers’ defense this year. (I don’t count the last 6½ minutes of their closing game, when they’d been lulled to sleep by the pathetic St. Louis Rams offense.)
In the second game of the season, the 49ers defense gave up a long pass to the Dallas Cowboys, which allowed the Cowboys to kick a game-winning field goal in overtime. Against the Arizona Cardinals, a week after they’d clinched the NFC West, they gambled too much on defense. Dashon Goldson was especially culpable, trying to outjump Larry Fitzgerald to make an interception instead of just tackling Fitzgerald after the catch. Big mistake. Fitzgerald is stronger and a better jumper. He caught the pass and ran for a touchdown.
Even in those games, though, the 49ers didn’t give up many points. Nor did they in their third loss, the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints won’t be able to turn this game into a track meet.
Of course, the 49ers offense will have to take advantage of its opportunities and score touchdowns, instead of settling for David Akers field goals. It helps that speedy wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams will return from injuries.
In the Superdome, the Saints probably win this game by a couple of touchdowns. But at Candlestick, it’s a tossup.