It's do-or-die time for 49ers in the Big Easy

Coming off a devastating loss, the 49ers will show a lot about themselves Sunday in New Orleans. The Niners remain on the periphery of the NFC playoff picture, but they would fall out of the race with a loss to the Saints. Quarterback Alex Smith knows that this is the biggest game in which he has played in his brief NFL career. "At this point in the season, all of them are must wins," Smith said.

But after playing a bunch of "big" games lately - the 49ers seldom if ever were in that situation in 2004-2005, two seasons during which they won a combined six games - this trip to the Crescent City counts as the most vital game San Francisco has played this late in the season since 2003.

The 49ers were trying to keep their playoff hopes alive on the road in a similar situation in a similar juncture of that season, the first of coach Dennis Erickson's brief tenure with the team.

"Absolutely, this is as big as any other," said Smith, the second-year signal-caller who joined the team as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft about four months after Erickson and his crew were shown the door by 49ers owner John York. "Hopefully, nobody's treating this game any differently. The next Sunday is always the most important game. But if you look at it with five games left, they get more and more important."

The reason this week's game is more important is because the 49ers are coming off a disappointing 20-17 loss to the Rams that easily could have been a hard-earned victory that thrust San Francisco into the thick of wild-card contention and left the 49ers with a winning record entering December for the first time since 2002.

But that didn't happen. The 49ers led 14-13 late in the game, and failed by an inch on a third-and-1 running play at the St. Louis 7-yard line. Coach Mike Nolan then opted to kick the field goal for a four-point lead with four minutes to play, challenging the Rams - who had been held scoreless in the second half to that point - to score a touchdown for the victory.

That's exactly what they did. The Rams drove 80 yards to score the winning touchdown with 27 second remaining and pull out the victory that left both NFC West rivals with a 5-6 record.

"Hopefully, our loss doesn't end up hurting us too bad," Smith said.

The 49ers fell below .500 after winning their previous three games - their first three-game winning streak since 2002 - to get there. A victory at St. Louis would have left the 49ers in a virtual tie with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers in the battle for the NFC's two wild-card playoff berths with five games remaining.

Now, San Francisco might need to win its final five games to reach the postseason. Or, perhaps, the 49ers can absorb one more defeat the remainder of the season to maintain any hopes of getting into the NFC postseason derby as a wild-card team.

But at least the 49ers overcame one hurdle in their loss to the Rams.

Typically, when the 49ers have fallen behind on the road, particularly early, they have had a difficult time staying in the ballgame. Earlier this season, they lost 41-0 at the Chiefs and 41-10 at the Bears after falling behind 24-0 in the first quarter and 41-0 at halftime of the latter game.

In St. Louis, the 49ers fell behind 10-0 in the second quarter and 13-7 at halftime, but they rallied to take a one-point lead into the third quarter that they carried deep into the fourth quarter before kicking the field goal that dared the Rams to score a late touchdown to beat them.

"There's a lot different feelings with the loss," Smith said. "Now, we're expecting to win the game. That's a lot different feeling than what we've had.

"We went down 10-0, and the other two remember - Kansas City and Chicago - it got out of hand in a hurry. In this one, we put a good drive together before the half and we're right back in it. If you're looking at positives, those are big differences."

The biggest challenge for the 49ers on Sunday will come for their vastly improved defense against the Saints' explosive offense.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the past five games. His 1,954 yards passing in those games is the most by a quarterback over any five-game stretch in NFL history.

Brees leads the NFL with 3,463 passing yards and is on a pace to finish with more than 5,000 yards passing this season. He's the league's fourth-ranked quarterback with a passer rating of 97.8.

"Drew Brees has always been a competitor," Nolan said. "I think good quarterbacks are competitive first. I think that's his number one deal. He keeps plays alive well. He has got outstanding vision. He's got talent in being able to throw the ball, but to me, his competitiveness and his vision down the field are the two assets I think really help him be a good player. I think everybody would be lucky to have a guy like that on your squad."

Brees hardly is the only dangerous offensive weapon the Saints have on their squad.

New Orleans features Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in the backfield along with Brees, who also can spread the ball around to three capable receivers - impact rookie Marques Colston, Pro Bowler Joe Horn and deep threat Devery Henderson.

"There are tests throughout the year," 49ers cornerback Walt Harris said. "We face high-caliber receivers every week. What makes this difficult is Brees is playing at such a high level. He's an accurate thrower, and it's not a one-man show. Everybody there is doing their job."

While the Saints have the NFL's No. 1-ranked passing offense, the 49ers are 25th in passing defense.

"Any game from the standpoint of where we are in the season is important," Harris said. "If we continue to win, those games become even more important. You have to win these important games to stay in the hunt."

The resurgent 49ers haven't been in the hunt for a while. This is a game they need to have to remain there, and it won't come easy in the Big Easy.

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