Five months ago, when the 49ers and New Orleans Saints met in the first game of the preseason, few would have imagined the two would see each other again in the playoffs. While it was just an exhibition game, the Saints humbled the 49ers 24-3 and had many thinking San Francisco was the leader in the clubhouse for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
But thanks to the inspired coaching of Jim Harbaugh, a career year by quarterback Alex Smith and the maturity of one of the most ferocious defenses in the NFL, the two square off Saturday at Candlestick Park with a spot in the NFC championship on the line.
“Going back and watching the preseason game, it’s obviously such a long time ago, but they brought heavy pressure and we didn’t handle it very well,” Smith said. “It was early on for us and obviously we’ve come a long way since then.”
As if the 49ers, who will be playing in the postseason for the first time since 2002 and are looking to reach their first NFC championship since 1997, need any extra motivation, the odds makers have made them 3½-point underdogs.
“It’s special being in the playoffs,” Harbaugh said. “I want them to feel that. Understand what this is all about. You get one shot.”
The 49ers’ biggest test Saturday will likely come from the opposing offense, led by record-setting QB Drew Brees and his seemingly endless array of weapons — running back Darren Sproles, tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Marques Colston, among them.
San Francisco will need to find a way to disrupt the Saints’ timing on offense, and that responsibility could fall on defensive end Justin Smith (7½ sacks) and linebacker Aldon Smith (14 sacks).
The stout Niners defense has met every challenge thus far, particularly at home. In their final three games at Candlestick Park in the regular season, the 49ers gave up a combined 10 points.
“We’ll see where the chips lay when the game is over, but we’re certainly going to come with everything we have,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “It’s either win or go home.”
3,144 passing yards, 17 TDs, 5 INTs
1,211 rushing yards, 8 TDs
874 yards receiving, 4 TDs
792 yards receiving, 6 TDs
97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT