Alex Smith’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left in the 49ers’ 2012 NFC Divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints signaled the team’s arrival as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Now, the defending NFC champion 49ers (6-3) are the hunted and they need another win against the high-flying Saints (7-2) to stay in the mix for one of the NFC’s top playoff seeds.
“We’re going to have to play our best football to have a chance in this one,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
The Saints are among the NFL’s elite teams again this season now that coach Sean Payton is back from a one-year suspension for his role in the infamous Bountygate scandal, which caught fire after a recording of a locker room speech on the eve of the teams’ 2012 playoff showdown surfaced.
In addition to recent history, the rivalry between the 49ers and Saint is intriguing because of the clash of styles the teams bring to the gridiron.
As the 49ers racked up five wins in six games by running the ball, playing ferocious defense and converting takeaways into points, the Saints throttled their opponents with precision through the air.
The Saints are second in total offense (422.7 yards per game), passing offense (324.9 yards per game) and scoring offense (29.4 points per game), trailing only the Denver Broncos in those categories.
Last week, the Saints racked up 625 yards of offense in their 49-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys while setting an NFC record with 40 first downs.
“[The Saints] really, really have things working very well offensively, machine-like in the way they operate,” Harbaugh said.
And the 49ers could be attempting to slow down the Saints’ offense without rookie safety Eric Reid, who left last week’s game against the Carolina Panthers with a concussion, and defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who wore a boot on his left foot this week to nurture a high-ankle sprain.
If Reid’s unable to go, Craig Dahl, whom the 49ers signed in the offseason, will take his place and Tony Jerod-Eddie is expected to make his first start on the line if McDonald is sidelined. Consequently, the 49ers’ best defense this week might be a steady offense.
Unlike the Saints, the 49ers still like to play power football behind what many consider to be the best offensive line in football.
The 49ers are currently fourth in rushing offense (147.7 yards per game) and Frank Gore isn’t showing any signs that he’s slowing down at age 30, ranked sixth in the NFL with 700 yards on the ground.
As a result, the 49ers’ strength plays into the Saints biggest weakness: stopping the run.
The Saints are ranked 23rd in rushing defense (117.7 yards per game) and they surrendered 139 yards on the ground to running back Chris Ivory in a 26-20 loss to the New York Jets two weeks ago.
If the 49ers can exert their will at the line scrimmage, they can control the clock and keep the Saints’ high-octane offense off the field.
“It definitely will be key this week, if we can stay on the field longer, get some 10-plus-play drives going,” 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin said.
But the running game could be hindered if tight ends Vernon Davis (concussion) and Garrett Celek (hamstring), who left last week’s game because of injuries, are unable to suit up.
If the 49ers are healthy enough to pull off a win, they’ll pull even with the Saints at 7-3 and set their sights on chasing down the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West. A loss could put the 49ers in a fight to make the playoffs all together.