The 12-point comparison: 49ers/Saints
QUARTERBACK: In the best season of his career by a landslide, Alex Smith has played a huge part and leading role in San Francisco's dramatic turnaround by playing with consistency and discipline within a defined system that has been a vital part of the Niners' winning formula. He is bigger and stronger than Drew Brees and won't take the same chances throwing down the field as his New Orleans counterpart. Smith's decision-making process improved dramatically this season and he protects the football – Smith's 1.1 interception percentage was the third-best in NFL history for any quarterback with more than 400 passing attempts in a season. Smith may be more athletic than Brees and more of a threat to make things happen with his feet, both when he escapes the pocket and on defined plays that have a run option. Brees holds the edge over Smith in practically every other element associated with the position. He is in the midst of one of the greatest sustained runs ever by a NFL quarterback, and his vision, quick release and accuracy throwing both short and long are far superior. While Smith finally is tasting success at the position in his seventh season, Brees has been doing it at the NFL's top level for almost a decade, and he already has proven he can produce in the playoff pressure-cooker that Smith will be experiencing for the first time. CLEAR EDGE: Saints
RUNNING BACK: The 49ers will have the best running back on the field Saturday in veteran Frank Gore, whose 1,211 yards rushing this season are twice as many as any other player in the game. Rookie Kendall Hunter has been a blessing for the Niners, providing the effective change-of-pace dimension to complement Gore that the team has been searching for since Gore emerged as a workhorse star in 2006. Rookie Bruce Miller also has made the Niners better in the backfield this year with his surprising and versatile play at fullback. The Saints counter with a three-headed attack featuring Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles, each of whom brings something different to the offense. While running the ball is the obvious strength of San Francisco's 26th-ranked offense, the Saints' top-ranked offense actually rushed for more yards than the 49ers this season while finishing sixth in the NFL in rushing. The Saints will throw to fullback Jed Collins (two TD catches) near the goal line, but he's basically a blocker in their attack. SLIGHT EDGE: 49ers
WIDE RECEIVER: While Michael Crabtree (72 receptions, 874 yards, 4 TDs this season) has emerged as a de facto No. 1 receiver for the 49ers, things have not quite worked out for San Francisco this year at the position with the loss of emerging Joshua Morgan to an October injury and the December release of an ineffective Braylon Edwards. That leaves the 49ers relying on Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams as their complementary receivers behind Crabtree, and neither had more than 20 catches this season. The Saints' three complementary receivers behind No. 1 wideout Marques Colston (80, 1,143, 8) combined for 124 catches for 1,750 yards and 16 TDs, though Lance Moore (52, 627, 8) didn't play in last week's wild-card victory over Detroit and is uncertain to play against the 49ers. Robert Meacham and Devery Henderson both are big-play threats who averaged better than 15 yards per catch this season, giving the Saints balance and versatility among Brees' downfield targets. CLEAR EDGE: Saints
TIGHT END: New Orleans' third-round draft pick in 2010, Jimmy Graham emerged from a 31-catch rookie season to become Brees' top target this season (99, 1,310, 11) on his way to a starting berth in the Pro Bowl. Graham is a constant downfield threat and a matchup nightmare for linebackers and strong safeties who frequently are matched up with him in coverage. The same is true for the Niners' Vernon Davis (67, 792, 6), a more complete player than Graham and a legitimate deep threat who is underused as a receiving option because of the nature of San Francisco's offensive style and approach. The 49ers are hurt by the loss of Delanie Walker (jaw injury), their versatile No. 2 option at the position, who is much more of a threat than New Orleans' seldom-used No. 2 David Thomas. Davis could emerge as a go-to guy and difference-maker if the 49ers decide to make him that Saturday, but Graham has made the greater impact at the position this season, and Brees certainly will be looking his way Saturday, just like he has all season. SLIGHT EDGE: Saints
OFFENSIVE LINE: After a rocky start, San Francisco's line developed into the best the 49ers have had since a veteran unit anchored by Pro Bowlers Jeremy Newberry and Ron Stone led them to their last playoff appearance after the 2002 season. LT Joe Staley earned himself a starting nod in the Pro Bowl with a breakthrough season, and he anchors the unit with veteran C Jonathan Goodwin. The Niners had to be pleased with the promising development of their 2010 first-round draft picks, RT Anthony Davis and LG Mike Iupati, who continued to progress as maulers in the ground game with Davis making significant strides in pass protection. Along with veteran RG Adam Snyder, who found a home in the starting lineup after taking over early in the season for inconsistent Chilo Rachal, this group became a more cohesive unit as the season progressed, opening holes for a rushing attack that ranked eighth in the league. The unit struggled to find consistency in pass protection, however, as Smith was sacked 44 times – more than any quarterback in the NFL – even though he went four games without a sack and five others with two sacks or fewer. In the other seven games, Smith was sacked 35 times. The Saints counter with one of the most complete units in the NFL, one that allowed Brees to be sacked just 24 times even though he threw 212 more passes than Smith. New Orleans is anchored by All-Pro first-team guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, both named starters for the NFC in the Pro Bowl, where they'll be joined by LT Jermon Bushrod. Those veterans carry the load for this unit, which also features two first-year starters in RT Zach Strief and C Brian de la Puente, a journeyman who broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the 49ers in 2008. That unit opened some gaping holes in the run game in last week's romp over Detroit, when the Saints rushed for 167 yards, averaging 4.6 yards a pop. CLEAR EDGE: Saints
DEFENSIVE LINE: NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Justin Smith anchors a dominant front in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme that includes emerging RE Ray McDonald and sturdy 330-pound NT Isaac Sopoaga. That unit was ferocious against the run and Smith (7.5 sacks, 59 QB hits, 72 QB pressures) and McDonald (5.5, 45, 64) were steady contributors on pass-rushing downs. The Saints run a standard 4-3 front that was underwhelming in its performance this year for a defense that ranked 24th in the NFL. NT Aubrayo Franklin, who wasn't missed by the 49ers this season after joining the Saints in free agency, finished the season with just 17 tackles and no sacks in nine starts. New Orleans' other starting tackle, Sedrick Ellis, had 29 tackles and 0.5 sacks. NT Junior Galette started in Franklin's place against Detroit and may be there to stay. RE Will Smith (35 tackles, 6.5 sacks) is the Saints' top performer and threat on this unit, where Galette is the only player besides Smith and LE Turk McBride (two sacks) with more than one sack. CLEAR EDGE: 49ers
LINEBACKERS: Because of the nature of the games they play, the Saints often find themselves in defensive packages that put only two linebackers on the field. OLB Scott Shanle (69 tackles, one sack) and ML Jonathan Vilma (54 tackles) were on the field last week when New Orleans started the game with a nickel package against Detroit. MLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar was the Saints' top run-stuffer this season with 79 tackles. The 49ers feature one of the NFL's most dynamic groups of 3-4 linebackers, a unit that is augmented by the play of rookie Aldon Smith, who has come off the bench on passing downs to produce a team-leading 14 sacks. Both inside linebackers, Patrick Willis (121 tackles) and NaVorro Bowman (173 tackles), were named first-team All-Pro and are rangy and productive sideline-to-sideline players. LOLB Ahmad Brooks emerged as a force with 59 tackles and seven sacks. Usually paired on opposite ends on passing downs, Smith and Brooks combined for 21 sacks, 26 tackles behind the line, 71 QB hits and 91 QB pressures. Starting ROLB Parys Haralson, who often was replaced by Smith in passing situations, also was effective when on the field. CLEAR EDGE: 49ers
SECONDARY: If you are going to move the ball on San Francisco's defense, you are going to have to pick on the secondary, which was tested often this season behind the team's formidable front seven. LCB Carlos Rogers emerged as a Pro Bowl starter and FS Dashon Goldson also earned a Pro Bowl berth with SS Donte Whitner named as an alternate. Rogers and Goldson each had six interceptions and RCB Tarell Brown had four picks for a ballhawking unit. Rookie Chris Culliver emerged as a capable nickel back, and he'll likely be on the field often against the Saints. The strength of New Orleans' defense is its secondary, which saw a lot of action this year with so many opponents having to pass to keep up with the Saints. New Orleans' top defensive playmakers are here with SS Roman Harper leading the Saints in both tackles (95) and sacks (7.5). LCB Jabari Greer and FS Malcolm Jenkins also were among the team's top four tacklers, and RCB Tracy Porter wasn't far behind. Nickel back Patrick Robinson, who spends a lot of time on the field, led the Saints this season with four interceptions. EDGE: 49ers
SPECIALISTS: The All-Pro first team this season consists of K David Akers and P Andy Lee, and they were two of the most instrumental players in San Francisco's 2011 success. Kicking specialists rarely have the type of significant and enduring impact on a season that both Akers and Lee had this year for the Niners, with both setting NFL records along the way. P Thomas Morstead also had a noteworthy season for the Saints, finishing fourth in the NFL with a 48.3-yard average and second behind Lee in net average at 43.1. Morstead also was a weapon with a NFL-leading 68 touchbacks while handling the kickoff duties in place of K John Kasay, who was second in the NFL in scoring with 147 points behind Akers' 166, a league record for a kicker. At age 42, Kasay doesn't have the distance in his leg that Akers still does, and Kasay was just 2 of 5 on field-goal attempts of 50 yards or beyond while Akers was 7 of 9. Morstead and Kasay both were very good for the Saints this season, but the seasons produced by Akers and Lee fall more into the great category. And both will be much more familiar with and comfortable in the fluctuating conditions at windy Candlestick Park than their New Orleans counterparts. CLEAR EDGE: 49ers
RETURN UNITS/COVERAGE UNITS: Punt/kickoff returner Ted Ginn Jr. has been a veritable weapon in helping the 49ers consistently win the battle of field position all season. He ranked third in the NFL with a 27.6-yard average on kickoff returns and fourth in the league with a 12.3 average on punt returns, returning one of each for a touchdown. The Saints counter with their own dangerous return man in slippery Darren Sproles, sixth in the NFL with a 27.2-yard average on kickoffs and 15th in the league with a 10.1 average on punt returns, including a 72-yard return for a TD. Thanks in part to their return/coverage units, the 49ers started 37 drives in opponents' territory this season, which led the NFL, with their average starting position on each drive at their own 33.5-yard line, which also led the league. The Niners also led the NFL with their opponents, on average, starting drives at their own 24.3-yard line, a testament to San Francisco's outstanding coverage units led by headhunters Blake Costanzo and C.J. Spillman. New Orleans ranked fifth in the NFL in punt-return average allowed by was 28th in kickoff average allowed. The 49ers were 11th and 13th, respectively. EDGE: 49ers
COACHING: Talk about knowing which buttons to push from the very start. Jim Harbaugh has hit the right ones with uncanny consistency while transforming the 49ers into big winners much sooner than anyone could have imagined. He also has been very good from the sidelines on game days, the true measure of a NFL head coach, which is exceptional for his relative inexperience in the role. Harbaugh has been supported by a strong staff of assistants, most notably by the game plans drawn up by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and the weekly excellence of special teams coordinator Brad Seely. But experience matters in the NFL, and Saints head coach Sean Payton already has taken his team to the top of the mountain and, just as significantly, is keeping it at that level with some of most innovative and aggressive offense the league has ever seen. Payton's defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, is one of the best in the business in that role and also has NFL head-coaching experience. While Harbaugh has had a phenomenal debut season, he's still just getting started by NFL standards. Payton and his staff have been there and done that. At this stage of the game, that counts for a lot. EDGE: Saints
INTANGIBLES: Apparently, nobody's got it better than the 49ers. That has been their rallying cry in the first season under Harbaugh, and it has helped develop a unique team unity and chemistry and a certain character within that has transcended beyond the white lines and given the Niners a sense of purpose and confidence the team hasn't possessed in previous seasons. There's a feeling that something special and lasting has arrived in San Francisco, and that grows stronger with every step forward the team takes. The Saints enter Saturday's game on a nine-game winning streak and with the supreme and justifiable confidence that their record-setting offense can't be stopped. They also have the invaluable experience of a run to the Super Bowl title just two years ago, and that can't be minimized in a game of this magnitude. The 49ers played increasingly well at home as the season progressed, going 7-1 at Candlestick Park and winning their final three games there by a combined margin of 69-10. A roaring sellout crowd could play a factor, and the Saints haven't been the same explosive team this year playing away from home or on grass, factors that could play into the outcome Saturday. SLIGHT EDGE: 49ers
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