It’s the matchup almost everyone in America (well, outside of NOLA and the Bay Area) will be ignoring: the 3-4 New Orleans Saints traveling to face the 1-6 San Francisco 49ers.
Despite the records, this isn’t a matchup between two bottom-of-the-barrel teams, it’s a mismatch. In classic Aints fashion, New Orleans lost their first two games on last minute scores by playoff caliber teams. They were also a Hail Mary away from beating the Chiefs in Week 7. In short, the Saints are a 5-2 (or better) team with a 3-4 record that’s still easily within range of the playoffs. A Saints win is all but guaranteed if they stay focused.
It starts, as usual, with the run game. The 49ers’ run defense is terrible, giving up a 100 yard rusher in each of their last six games and ranking last in the league in multiple categories, including giving up a whopping 5.1 yards per carry. It could be said that those stats are a product of the opponents the Niners have faced- the Panthers and Seahawks have always built strong run games with mediocre backs, and following that with Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and LeSean McCoy can’t help. However, this week doesn’t look much better for Chip Kelly’s defense. Mark Ingram is a talented back who’s angry with himself after losing an early fumble last week and getting benched. If he fumbles again, Tim Hightower could very well step up and run all over them- after all, he did rack up 102 yards replacing Ingram against Seattle’s top five run defense.
As much as Sean Payton loves his tricks and high-flying passing game, he will recognize this opportunity and build longer drives by pounding the ball. This leads to another standard assumption- the defense will play tougher and faster thanks to the extra rest and that is not good news for the 49ers offense. No matter what you think of Colin Kaepernick’s actions before games, it is an undeniable fact that he is not a strong passer. Over the course of his career, he’s averaged about 200 passing yards per game, and turns the ball over at least a couple of times a game (if you include fumbles). He’s also failed to reach a 50% completion rate in either game he started this season.
Even worse, Carlos Hyde has been limited in practice, and his game status is unclear, while Mike Davis and Shaun Draughn are uninspiring backups. If Hyde misses the game, Kaepernick will have to become a far better passer and keep his team in the game.
Historically, the 49ers have dominated the series, but not this time. Expect the Saints to crush their former division rival in a lopsided blowout, somewhere along the lines of 34-17.