When the 49ers lose a game these days, the sky falls and Armageddon is at hand.
After two consecutive terrific seasons and a Super Bowl appearance, head coach Jim Harbaugh has raised expectations to heights not seen since the days of Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
So, when the Niners lost to the Carolina Panthers last week, 10-9, to halt a five-game winning streak, suddenly red flags went up all over the Bay Area. The Niners may have been 6-3, but observers noted that Harbaugh’s team has actually been two teams this season. In their victories, they’ve been dominant. In their defeats – against three of the toughest teams in the NFL – they’ve been dominated.
Now, the 49ers must travel to New Orleans Sunday to take on the Saints, a team that certainly ranks among the best and most explosive in the NFL. The 7-2 Saints are coming off a 49-17 thrashing of the Cowboys, have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Drew Brees and roll up an average of 422.7 yards per game on offense, the second-best total in the league (behind Denver).
So, in their 10th game, the 49ers face a big question: Can they beat a good team? And can they bounce back from adversity in the hostile environment of the Superdome, where the Saints are 5-0 this season?
San Francisco is 4-0 and averaging 35.5 points per game against teams with losing records, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, but only 2-3 and scoring just 17 points per game vs. teams with winning marks.
The Niners defense ranks No. 6 in the NFL and is fourth in scoring defense, allowing just 17.2 points per game. But linebacker Patrick Willis says containing the Saints will be one of the biggest challenges they’ve had this season.
“Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and he has shown it year in and year out,” Willis told the media on a conference call. “Last year he put up some good numbers, but I know it wasn’t the kind of year he wanted to have. With them getting their coaching staff back and getting the head coach back, they are clicking on offense right now. They are a very tough offense to defend.”
But, he added, he’s confident he and his teammates are up to the task.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith is expected to play much more Sunday in his second week back with the team, and rookie safety Eric Reid – who suffered a concussion last week – is hopeful he can play as well. Reid still has to be cleared by the medical staff to play.
On offense, meanwhile, the 49ers need to rediscover their spark.
Against Carolina, the Niners’ passing attack was woeful. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw for just 91 yards and was sacked six times. For the season, the 49ers rank dead last in in the league in passing offense. This week offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the problems were on him, and vowed to get the unit back on track. But against the Saints, it may be difficult. New Orleans is third in the NFL in pass defense.
Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said the key for the Saints will be to put pressure on Kaepernick – as the Panthers and Seahawks did this season in victories over the 49ers – while stopping the San Francisco run game.
“What they really want to do is run the ball and control the clock and hit you with play-action,” Jenkins said this week. “That’s usually where their chunk plays come from. Once you take those away, you can get pressure on the quarterback and keep him in the pocket. Only give him time for one, maybe two reads. That’s when you have a little bit of success against him.”
The running attack is where the 49ers have the advantage. San Francisco is fourth in the league in rushing, and the Saints rank 23rd against the run. If the 49ers offensive line can punch some holes in the defense for Frank Gore, they can establish some tempo – and perhaps come away with the statement victory they’re hoping to get.