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2012 Divisional Preview: New Orleans vs San Francisco

This is the first of four posts this week examining the Divisional matchups in the NFL Playoffs. Check back during the next few days for more previews:

After a poor 1-3 showing by me last week with my predictions, I’m doing it all again for the Divisional round. First up, the Saints visit the 49ers at 4:30 ET on Saturday on Fox. This is a huge matchup between two teams that both finished the year 13-3. New Orleans and San Francisco did not face each other this year so they’ll be working off game film entirely to prepare for Saturday. Here’s a look at the matchup:

Offense: The Saints have a lethal passing game with Drew Brees, who set an NFL record this year for passing yards in a season. Not much more needs to be said for New Orleans’s passing game: it’s tremendous. But the Saints’ running game is underrated with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomsa offering different options in the backfield. New Orleans tore up the Detroit Lions last week, putting 45 points on the board against the Lions’ tough defense.

For the 49ers, quarterback Alex Smith is still young but he has the luxury of playing in a system where he’s not the focal point. Running back Frank Gore is one of the league’s best backs and ran for over 1200 yards this year and fumbling just twice all year. Smith threw just five interceptions as well as the 49ers excelled at not giving up the ball. However, while San Francisco did not turn the ball over often, it also gained only 311 yards per game, seventh worst in the league.

Defense: New Orleans defense gave up 28 points (seven in each quarter) to the Lions in last weekend’s Wild Card matchup. The pass defense wasn’t very good – giving up 380 yards and three touchdowns, but the Lions also picked off Matthew Stafford twice and gave up only 32 total yards on the ground, both good numbers.

San Francisco’s defense is where it’s true skill lies. The 49ers gave up the fourth fewest yards in the NFL this year, including a league-low 77.3 running yards per game. However, San Francisco still gives up more than 230 yards per game through the air which Brees could take advantage of on Saturday.

Special Teams: The 49ers made the most field goals in the league with 44, but their eight misses were one of the worst in the league. The Saints’ field goal unit made it’s only attempt last week, an easy 24-yarder, but had a slightly worse field goal percentage than San Francisco during the regular season. While New Orleans was third in the league at punt returns, San Francisco was even better, averaging more than 27 yards per kickoff return. The punt return games are pretty similar with the 49ers possessing a slight advantage.

Overall: This game should be close as it pits a great offensive team against a great defensive team. However, the 49ers pass defense isn’t that strong and Brees should take advantage of that. The home field advantage should give San Francisco an edge, but I think Brees will have another great game. Sproles is also a crafty running back that could cause the 49ers’ great run defense some problems as well and the Saints will pull the upset:

New Orleans 24 San Francisco 17

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