SAN FRANCISCO – Drew Brees piled up points, yards and accolades in a record-setting season for the New Orleans Saints. Much of the time, Alex Smith did just enough to get the San Francisco 49ers back in the playoffs for the first time in nine years while a dominant defense and kicking game did the rest.
Everybody is curious to see which of the contrasting styles works best in a classic playoff matchup.
Does the old notion that defense wins championships still hold up?
“We’re going to find out,” 49ers punter Andy Lee said.
Brees and the Saints (14-3) come to sold-out Candlestick Park today riding a nine-game winning streak after gaining 600 yards in each of their last two games, including a playoff-record 626 yards in last Saturday night’s 45-28 win over the Lions. Brees threw for 466 yards and completed 33 of 43 passes.
Since the merger in 1970, a team had gained 600 yards in a game only 11 times in the regular season or playoffs before the Saints did it the past two weeks.
The San Francisco defense knows it will have to keep Brees off the field and pressure him at every chance to slow down these Saints.
“They’re built a little bit differently. They’re typically a lot bigger, they’re more physical,” Brees said of the Niners. “You look at them statistically, No. 1 against the run, they’re putting all kinds of pressure on the quarterback. … They rarely miss tackles.”
The fact that Lee is such an important figure for the 49ers shows just how different these teams are. The Saints didn’t punt once in their playoff opener.
San Francisco (13-3) also relied on David Akers’ single-season NFL record of 44 field goals to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
“This is a game where the better defense will definitely win the game,” New Orleans linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “It’s about us stopping them from doing whatever they want to do. They have to play a different brand of ball, and we have to play good in all three phases of the game.”
San Francisco’s dominant “D” has no flashy nickname, just a balanced attack featuring All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, rookie Aldon Smith and talented linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. And, in the secondary, Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson have six interceptions apiece.
“With two good defenses, I don’t think it’s going to be high-scoring,” Rogers said. “That’s what everybody wants to see because it’s the Saints. We don’t give up a lot of points.”
They also had 38 takeaways to only 10 turnovers for a plus-28 turnover differential, which matched the 2010 Patriots for the second-best mark in NFL history since 1941.
The Saints scored three rushing touchdowns against the Lions, two by Darren Sproles and another from Pierre Thomas. That’s as many as San Francisco gave up during the season, all in the last two games.
TODAY’S NFC PLAYOFF GAME
NEW ORLEANS (14-3) AT SAN FRANCISCO (13-3)
1:30 P.M., CANDLESTICK PARK, SAN FRANCISCO, CH. 13
How the Saints can win: QB Drew Brees set the NFL single-season record for passing yards during the regular season. New Orleans must face the rugged 49ers defense, and the Saints never have won a road playoff game. But the 49ers were 26th in the league in total offense.
How the 49ers can win: They must run the ball on offense to control the clock and the game, and rely on their defense to slow down Brees. The 49ers are built to do that. They ranked eighth in the league in rushing offense. They were second in the league in scoring defense, and they had an NFL-best turnover margin of plus-28.
The Washington Post