Alex Smith

49ers vs. Saints: the past means nothing

After a strange start that saw the Detroit Lions take a 14-10 lead into halftime, logic and sense prevailed and the New Orleans Saints ran the Lions out of the Superdome as most thought they would. So now the Saints will head to San Francisco to face the 49ers at Candlestick Park on Saturday, a game I’m happy to say I’ll be attending.

The Niners should put up a better fight than the Lions, seeing as their defense and ability to accumulate yards on the ground trump what Detroit can do. But if we’re looking for clues as to how the game will progress, the last thing we should do is look back at the recent meetings between the two teams. Why? Because those two games have about as much to do with Saturday’s matchup as the last time I saw New Orleans in person — a 28-27 49ers win back in 2001.

1. New Orleans 24, San Francisco 3, 8/12/11 (preseason)

Much was made of the Saints constantly blitzing in the year’s first exhibition game, but that’s just a media hook to get people to think that there’s some kind of mutual grudge between Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton (and since it’s his defense, Gregg Williams).

Drew Brees completed 1-of-4 passes in this game for 6 yards; Alex Smith went 2-for-7 for 10 yards. Colin Kaepernick and Chase Daniel combined to throw 40 passes in a game where both teams simply hoped to end the game without sustaining any serious injuries in the first game after the lockout ended. Preseason games are meaningless money-grabs by the NFL — the less attention paid to this game, the better.

2. New Orleans 25, San Francisco 22, 9/20/10

Now here’s the game that’s causing all this unwarranted optimism from 49ers fans. Not to say that the Niners are going to lose to the Saints on Saturday, but I’ve seen or heard this line of thinking a little too often since the Saints took care of the Lions last night:

The Niners almost beat the Saints at the Stick, and the 49ers were nowhere near as good back then as they are now. With a better defense, better special teams and much better coaching, the Saints won’t know what hit ’em.

The 49ers are clearly better than they were, but so are the Saints — at least on offense. Playing the roles of Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush (who broke his right fibula against the 49ers) are Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. The Saints were a very good offense last season; now they’re arguably the most explosive team in the game. Brees had 33 TD and 22 INT last season, while averaging 7.0 yards per attempt; this year that ratio was 46/14 and his ypa climbed to 8.3.

The Saints are also different mentally this time around. Last year they were the defending champs, and they came into San Francisco a week after the Niners got crushed in Seattle, 31-6. After the Saints jumped out to an early 9-0 lead, they looked half-asleep. They weren’t worried about Mike Singletary’s Niners. That is, until the end of the game when, after the 49ers scored a TD and were successful on the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 22-22, Brees calmly led the Saints on a 56-yard drive in a little over a minute to set up the game-winning field goal.

This isn’t the same Saints squad that lost 41-36 in Seattle in last year’s Wild Card round. Those Saints limped into the postseason, losing two of their last three games and *only* scoring 54 points in the process. The Saints the 49ers will face on Saturday have won nine straight, and their point totals in their last four games are 42, 45, 45 and 45.

The Saints may look invincible to some, but they are beatable. No, seriously. We’ll get to the reasons why in the coming days, but rest assured they’ll be based on what the two teams are made of now, not what they did against each other 5 or 16 months ago.

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