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 that old notion that defense wins championships still hold up these days?
“We’re going to find out,” 49ers punter Andy Lee said.
Brees and the Saints (14-3) come to sold-out Candlestick Park on Saturday afternoon 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. “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 under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers stunned the New York Giants 39-38 at home in the NFC wild-card game back in January 2003.
“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.”
There have been several noteworthy playoff games featuring teams with opposing styles.
In the NFC championship game after the 1999 season, St. Louis’ “The Greatest Show on Turf” group of Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk held on for an 11-6 victory over the defensive-minded Buccaneers.
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.”
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.
New Orleans is three-point favorites and can already envision that premier matchup with defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay in the NFC championship game next weekend. Yet Saints coach Sean Payton insists his team found out the hard way last year and doesn’t want to fall in another upset after losing the wild-card game to Seattle.
“When you finish the season and you finish with a tough loss, that’s something you remember and you really remember forever,” Payton said. “There are certain things you learn from. You understand the finality of this time of the year and you never take things for granted. All of us, players and coaches, will all carry that tough loss with us, just as we will the really good wins we have.”
The 49ers plan to stick with what got them this far.
They should be fresh and healthy after a week off as the NFC’s No. 2 seed. The Saints chased them late in the year hoping to steal the second spot. One thing these Niners don’t do is make many mistakes.
They 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.
“All the major statistics, they rank very high,” Saints wideout Marques Colston said. “I think the No. 1 thing they do is cause turnovers. So obviously that’s going to be first and foremost for us this week.”
Alex Smith, the 27-year-old 2005 No. 1 overall pick, took care of the ball and threw for 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns — hardly Brees-like numbers.
“I really don’t care. I’m looking to outscore him. He can throw for however many yards he wants to,” Smith said. “A lot of different ways to win games in this league. Obviously offensively, they’re doing a lot of great things right now. Record-setting offense. It’s kind of what you aspire to get to, no question. ... It is what it is. It still comes down to scoring more points than the other team and that’s what we’re looking to do.”
San Francisco turned things around at last with Coach of the Year favorite Harbaugh running the show and doing things his way.
His message this week: “Don’t overcook it.”
“Like a burnt piece of meat, that doesn’t taste real good,” said Harbaugh, whose Niners have lost the last six to the Saints. “Trust their own instincts. Trust their gut. Make it about the team. Trust the team. A guy doesn’t have to do too much. I think our team goes into this game confident and bold.”
Running back Frank Gore gets it.
“What got us here. I think that’s what it’s going to take,” Gore said.
Way back at the start of this journey, the Niners took a 24-3 thumping against New Orleans in the Superdome in the teams’ August exhibition opener.
The Saints blitzed all day and finished with six sacks.
It’s still plenty fresh for the 49ers.
“I’m sure they slept well that night because they really got after us,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “The Saints, if they choose to be, can be one of the best blitzing teams in the league.”
While the 49ers feature only eight players with playoff experience to 39 for the Saints before last weekend, they are loose and unfazed.
“There’s no pressure in this locker room,” Rogers said. “We’re not supposed to be here. We’re supposed to be going home.”