There is concern about the Saints on the road. Coach Sean Payton's Saints outscored opponents 329 to 143 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but only 218 to 196 on the road. At home, the Saints were literally unstoppable and unbeaten, scoring at least 30 points in seven of their eight games at home.
Usually, Candlestick has a slippery field, but the playing surface should be good with no rain predicted. Darren Sproles on a dry field is the most dangerous non-quarterback in the playoffs.
That should enable the Sproles to have a big game. He set the NFL all-purpose yards in a season and rushed for 603 yards and caught passes for 867 yards. He was the best free agent signing in the league this season.
"I can't believe the Saints got him for the cheap price that they got him for," 49ers defensive coordinator told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I think if it was the NBA, the commissioner might have stepped in and stopped that move."
The Saints, for all of Drew Brees' 5,476 passing yards, actually rank sixth in the league in rushing. Even without injured Mark Ingram, the Saints with Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory combined for 186 yards last week in their 45-28 victory over the Lions.
49ers defensive end Justin Smith has a lot of respect for the Saints offense. He said the Saints' Carl Nicks and Jehri Evans are the toughest guards he faces. He also said the Saints uniquely keep opponents guessing with play calls because of their underrated running game.
The 49ers defense ranked fourth in the league this season and first in rushing yards allowed.
They win by successfully getting running back Frank Gore in space, by not turning the ball over and by not beating themselves with penalties.
Quarterback Alex Smith has developed into a solid game manager and the 49ers are capable of beating defenses vertically when they stack the box hoping to slow Gore.
But Smith could be pressed into a situation where he has to match wits with Brees. And while Smith has had a good season, that's a matchup that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't want to see play out.
The 49ers have allowed only 10 points in their last three home games and the Saints didn't top 25 points in their last two outdoors games.
I believe the Saints will cover the 3 1/2 points and advance to the NFC championsip game. Final: Saints 24-20.
Other playoff picks:
Patriots -13 1/2 over Broncos; Giants +7 1/2 over Packers.
by Ed Staton