KICKOFF: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. PST
SITE: Candlestick Park in San Francisco
SURFACE: Natural grass
RECORDS: 49ers 13-3, 10-2 in NFC, champion of NFC West, No. 2 seed in NFC playoffs; Saints, 14-3, 9-3 in NFC; champion of NFC South, No. 3 seed in NFC playoffs
LAST WEEK: 49ers had first-round playoff bye; Saints defeated Detroit Lions 45-28 in NFC Wild-Card game
NFL RANKINGS: 49ers: No. 26 in total offense, No. 4 in total defense. Saints: No. 1 in total offense, No. 24 in total defense
TV: FOX (Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa)
SERIES HISTORY: 72nd meeting in a series that started back in 1967. 49ers lead series, 45-24-2. This is the first playoff meeting between the two teams. The Saints have won the last six games over San Francisco and nine of the last 11, including a 25-22 defeat in a Monday night game on Sept. 20 of last season. Many 49ers say that was the best game they played in 2010. The 49ers are 22-11-2 at Candlestick Park against the Saints.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Saints QB Drew Brees filleted the Lions' linebacker corps, which failed to provide resistance in coverage of RB Darren Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham last week. The 49ers have arguably the best bunch of 'backers in the NFL, and won't let Brees set his feet and throw on time by using delayed and cornerback blitzes to cloud passing lanes. It's tantamount for the Saints to commit to running between the tackles, using their massive interior linemen to lean on ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the top playmakers on the NFL's No. 1-ranked run defense. Doing so buys Brees time to dial deep throws to Graham and WR Robert Meachem. No team turns it over less – 10 in the regular season – or takes the ball away more (38, tied, Green Bay) than the 49ers. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can live in his "jumbo" personnel package. While RB Frank Gore is the central figure in play-action offense, the 49ers are likely to pass on early downs, using quick-hitting crossing routes to TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker – which puts SS Roman Harper in coverage – from bunched formations. The Saints want to force Smith to convert third downs; San Francisco was 31st in the NFL with a rate of 29.4 percent during the regular season. In a close game, the 49ers get the edge. K David Akers had 44 field goals in 2011 and has 31 postseason field goals while P Andy Lee (44.0-yard net) and RS Ted Ginn are valued weapons.
FAST FACTS: The Saints have won six in a row against the 49ers, averaging 31 points, and have scored at least 30 points in five consecutive playoff games. ... The 49ers went 5-0 against 2011 opponents that played the Saints. ... Saints PK John Kasay was 7-of-13 from 40-plus yards this season. Five of his six misses were on the road.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- The number of 49ers that made the All-Pro team, which is the most in the league. 67.7 -- Completion percentage in eight career postseason games for QB Drew Brees, who ranks second in NFL history behind only Aaron Rodgers (67.8 percent).
QUOTES TO NOTE
"I can't believe they got him for the cheap price that they got him for replacing (former Saints RB) Reggie Bush. I think if it was the NBA, the commissioner might have stepped in and stopped that move." -- 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on Darren Sproles' four-year $14 million contract with New Orleans
"When you look at where they were as a team, the turnaround in one season has been unbelievable. ... Clearly, he's the coach of the year this season. There's not a close second when you look at what he started with and what they've done as a staff." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on the job 49ers rookie coach Jim Harbaugh has done this season
49ERS GAME PLAN: The Saints are so versatile, the 49ers expect anything. Players say the Saints' blitz package is the most extensive of any team they've faced this season, but that Saints can go into a game and play coverage. Defensively, the 49ers are concerned about getting pressure on quarterback Drew Brees, but also not allowing him to step up in the pocket where he can see the whole field. The team also wants to limit late throws to RB Darren Sproles.
SAINTS GAME PLAN: The 49ers' defense led the NFL against the run in allowing just 77.3 yards per game, but the Saints will likely put that to the test with a sixth-ranked run game that averaged 132.9 yards per game. Even if they can do something on the ground, the Saints will go to the air but will have to be careful against an opportunistic 49ers' defense that had 23 interceptions in the regular season. If the Saints can run, it would allow them to throw the ball when they want – which could reduce the risk of turnovers. Defensively, the Saints will have to pressure quarterback Alex Smith and force him into mistakes – something the 49ers haven't done this season with only 10 giveaways. Smith has had a solid season, so not letting him get too comfortable against their leaky pass defense will be a must as wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis have 139 catches – just more than half of the team's 277 receptions for the season. And not letting running back Frank Gore get off to a fast start will be a must as well.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- 49ers interior defensive line, which has consistently pressured the pocket, vs. Saints Gs Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, who are both Pro Bowl players
--- 49ers QB Alex Smith, who makes many checks at the line of scrimmage, vs. Saints LB Jonathan Vilma and S Malcolm Jenkins, who make the checks for the Saints defense
--- Saints front seven vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore: The Saints don't go against the 49ers twice a year like they used to when they were members of the NFC West, but they know a lot about Gore. In their last meeting in Week 2 of the 2010 season, the shifty back roughed them up for 112 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and added another 56 yards and a score on seven catches
--- Saints QB Drew Brees vs. 49ers LCB Carlos Rogers -- After struggling a bit in recent years, Rogers has rejuvenated his career since joining the Niners. A former first-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins, Rogers earned a starting nod for the Pro Bowl game with six interceptions and a touchdown so Brees will have to pick his spots to make sure he keeps him off balance
--- Saints TEs and RBs vs. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith: With 14 sacks this season, Smith has been a terror and one of the reasons the 49ers tied for seventh in the league in that category. The Saints will have to use their tight ends and backs to help Chip Smith when he comes around the corner and tries to get past tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief
Inside the camps
Even though Saints coach Sean Payton likes to keep his team's routine as normal as possible, Saturday's showdown with the 49ers required some tweaking of the schedule this week.
The Saints will be playing on Saturday for the second straight week, but last week's wild-card game was at home against the Detroit Lions. A road trip, and a lengthy one at that, changed everything this week.
After wrapping up their heavy work on Thursday, the Saints boarded a chartered plane bound for the West Coast. After arriving later in the night, the Saints had a full day Friday to get acclimated to a two-hour time change and the natural grass surface of Candlestick Park during a walk-through practice that will wrap up their preps.
"It's kind of always been our West Coast itinerary," Payton said after Thursday's practice. "We've done that almost every trip we've gone out there, the half a dozen we've had. We get to the hotel (two days before) and then get to the stadium and get used to the footing and the conditions."
While it was highly unusual for the Saints to be traveling on Thursday, Payton said his team usually handles change and oddball schedules well. But, he does try to stick to the routine that most NFL players and coaches are used to when they play on a Sunday.
"You try to keep it the same ... you try to get into that routine that put you into that position," he said of the playoffs. "I think the players and team and coaches are all creatures of habit, so you set your schedule.
"What happens a little different in the playoffs is a Saturday game or a Sunday game, but outside of that I think most importantly for the team is getting in your routine and emphasizing the things that put you in that position and not really straying too far from the success you've had."
For the 49ers to upset the Saints, all indications are they are going to have to get a fairly productive game from quarterback Alex Smith. While New Orleans gives up 4.9 yards per carry in the run game, that stat is misleading.
Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the yards per carry is a result of innocuous 30-yard runs by the opposition at the end of blowout Saints wins. Also, the Saints' run defense improved greatly in the second half of the season, when they smothered the likes of Michael Turner (39 yards), Chris Johnson (23 yards) and Adrian Peterson (60 yards).
Meanwhile, the 49ers no longer possess the potent running attack that once saw Frank Gore rip off five straight games of 100 yards rushing or more. Gore hasn't reached the century mark since Nov. 6.
But the Saints do allow yards in the passing game. New Orleans led the league in allowing pass plays of 40 yards or more with 14. Not only that, the blitz-mad Saints might be playing right into what Smith does best, and that's beat pressure. Smith's passer rating against the blitz this year is 96.3, which trails only Aaron Rodgers (131.4) and Tom Brady (110.9). Eight of his 17 touchdown passes and only one of his five picks were against the blitz.
Behind Smith, the 49ers are actually offensively potent at home. They averaged nearly 30 points (29.9) at home, which is fourth highest in the league.
Like Brees, Smith takes advantage of checks at the line and the ability to change the offense in the serene surroundings of friendly Candlestick Park.
"Obviously crowd noise plays into that, especially on third down when you're trying to throw the ball on the road," Smith said. "Anywhere you go you're going to be dealing with crowd noise. So at home, to be able to use the cadence and be able to communicate a little easier, verbally obviously helps. I think that might play into it."
Conversely, only 18 of Brees' 46 touchdown passes have come on the road because much of what Brees does is make last-second adjustments before the snap, which, as Smith notes, are more difficult to make in loud stadiums.
It would therefore not be completely surprising if Smith out-passed Brees on Saturday and, in fact, that's what happened last year at Candlestick Park. Brees passed for 254 yards and two scores in the Saints 25-22 win, while Smith threw for 275 yards and no scores.
The difference? Smith threw damning interceptions.
When asked about the chances of out-throwing Brees this time, Smith said, "I really don't care. I'm looking to out-score him. He can throw for however many yards he wants to."
--- WR Lance Moore didn't practice this week because of a hamstring injury he suffered on Dec. 26 and was ruled out of Saturday's game by the Saints on Friday.
--- MLB Jonathan Vilma was held out Thursday to rest his arthroscopically-repaired knee, but he participated in Friday's walkthrough at Candlestick Park and should play against the 49ers.
--- TE John Gilmore again did not work because of the toe injury that sidelined him for the last two games and won't play Saturday.
--- SS Roman Harper practiced on a limited basis Thursday with the ankle injury that forced him to sit out Wednesday's workout, but he's listed as probable to play Saturday.
--- LB Jonathan Casillas was limited again in practice Thursday because of a knee injury that kept him out of last week's game and he is listed as questionable to play against the 49ers.
--- WR Robert Meachem, who suffered a minor knee injury in the regular-season finale, practiced fully Thursday and is probable to play Saturday.
--- TE Delanie Walker (jaw) missed the team's last full practice and won't play against the Saints, though the 49ers have him listed as questionable for the game.
--- DE Ray McDonald (hamstring) was limited in practice but says he will play. He's also listed as questionable.
--- DE Ricky Jean Francois could get some time in this game because of the leg injuries to Ray McDonald and Justin Smith (knee). Smith was not listed on San Francisco's injury report this week.
--- WR Ted Ginn Jr. could be a key figure in this game as a kickoff returner. The Saints rank 28th in opponent's kickoff return average. Ginn, who missed San Francisco's final two games of the regular season, is listed as questionable but is expected to play.
--- TE Vernon Davis has averaged 81 yards receiving in the last three games after hitting a lull earlier in the season.