NFL Preview - San Francisco (4-4) at New Orleans (4-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - They may have the worst record of any first-place team in the NFL, but the New Orleans Saints are right where they want to be.
The NFC South leaders hope a key stretch of home games can help them improve on their season mark, a span that begins with this Sunday's visit by the San Francisco 49ers to the Superdome.
New Orleans has followed up a 1-3 start with a victory in three of its past four to get to .500 on the season. More importantly, thanks to a plethora of bad play in the division, the Saints sit in first place, just up on 3-5-1 Carolina after beating the Panthers 28-10 last Thursday in North Carolina.
The Saints' second win in a row came just four days after they routed Green Bay, so New Orleans has a little bit of extra rest going into a three-game homestand.
Oh, and the Saints have won each of their past 11 games at home.
"There's plusses and minuses with playing a Thursday game," noted New Orleans head coach Sean Payton. "The challenge overall is the quick turnaround. The benefit is receiving a little bit of additional time to get people rested up. There were a number of things that we pointed out when they came back in that we have to work on."
Payton will hope the time off won't slow down running back Mark Ingram, who ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Carolina. Drew Brees threw for 297 yards with a touchdown and interception, while tight end Jimmy Graham hauled in seven passes for 83 yards and a score.
"It feels good," Ingram said. "We just have to continue to prove it. We know that if we bring our A-game on the road and execute, limit the mistakes and turnovers, we can beat anybody."
Junior Galette recorded two of New Orleans' four sacks and its defense held Cam Newton to just 151 yards passing with an interception on just 10-of-28 efficiency.
Despite being home, it isn't an easy stretch for the Saints for the most part. Following this test against the Niners, they will also host Cincinnati and Baltimore before hitting the road to battle Pittsburgh.
New Orleans has won five of its past six at home versus San Francisco and seven of the past eight regular-season meetings overall, though the Niners got the better of the Saints, 36-32, in a NFC Divisional playoff contest on Jan. 14, 2012.
The 49ers will come to town looking to avoid a third straight loss. They were blown out in Denver on Oct. 19 going into a bye, then fell to 4-4 on the season with last Sunday's 13-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams.
While the defense held the Rams to just 193 yards of offense, the 49ers themselves gained just 263 yards and Colin Kaepernick was sacked eight times while throwing for 237 yards and a touchdown.
Kaepernick was also charged with a goal line fumble on third down on a QB sneak attempt in the game's final moments.
"The ball came out. I have to hold on to it," said Kaepernick, who added he felt he crossed the goal line with the football.
"We had opportunities in both halves. We didn't take advantage."
Kaepernick's fumble came a few players after his pass attempt to Michael Crabtree caused the wideout to go to the ground and out-of-bounds to make the catch just in front of the goal line.
Anquan Boldin made six catches for 93 yards as the Niners' back-to-back losses have come on the heels of winning three straight.
"Well, we didn't have enough good football to win the game," said Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh. "Now, we got to suck it up. That's a tough loss."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It's another year of offensive production by the Saints, who rank fifth in the NFL with 28.4 points per game and second with 436.5 yards of offense per game.
Brees will be going up against the league's second-ranked defense, as the Niners are yielding only 291.9 yards per game, but San Francisco also is giving up 22.3 points per game.
San Francisco is top five against both the pass and the rush, but the Saints may still try to keep Ingram going. He ran for a career-high 172 yards prior to his effort versus the Panthers, making him the first Saints back to run for over 100 yards in consecutive games since Deuce McAllister during the 2006 campaign.
Brees, meanwhile, has thrown for 3,810 yards with 34 touchdowns to just six interceptions while winning his past 11 games at home. He has won six of his past seven versus the Niners as well, logging 16 touchdowns and five picks for a 101.0 passer rating.
"He's been playing well and at a very high level for a very long time and that's something offensively we have to be aware of because we're going to have to put up points to win this game," said Kaepernick, who noted that the Niners and Saints run similar offenses.
Kaepernick has passed for three touchdowns and also has run for a score in two starts versus the Saints, but he'll need better protection than what he got versus the Rams.
Payton credited St. Louis and doesn't expect similar luck this weekend.
"That would be the exception, because that's not what you see normally. He's done a great job of reducing turnovers again this year," the Saints coach said of Kaepernick.
Kaepernick has thrown at least one TD pass in 15 straight games, tied with Jeff Garcia for the second-longest streak in club history. Boldin has been his favorite target, with the wideout amassing 45 receptions on the year. His six catches versus the Rams made him the third fastest player in NFL history to reach 900 in a career, doing so in 164 games to trail only Marvin Harrison (149) and Andre Johnson (150).
San Francisco limited St. Louis to a mere 105 passing yards last weekend, with safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Perrish Cox each getting in interception.
That effort came despite linebacker Patrick Willis missing a second straight game with a toe injury and cornerback Tramaine Brock also sitting out with a toe issue.
Willis did not practice on Wednesday, but has not been ruled out, while Brock was limited in practice.
Linebacker Chris Borland had a major impact with 18 tackles against the Rams. Fellow LB Ahmad Brooks has 4 1/2 sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in four meetings with the Saints.
The Saints are 20th in total defense at 370.5 yards allowed per game, but have yielded just 345 per game over the past four with eight turnovers forced and 12 sacks.
Galette's two sacks versus the Panthers earned him NFC Defensive Player of the week honors and he also forced a fumble.
"He's coming off a big game for us. Obviously the one thing about him is he has that ability down in and down out," said Payton.
After a slow start, the Saints are starting to look more like the playoff- caliber team and given the overall weakness of the division, this three-game homestand could solidify their spot atop the NFC South.
"It is nice to get in front of the home crowd," said Brees. "I feel like we have some momentum going with these last two victories, one home and one on the road. No more important game than the next one and especially just the way our season has been going, we want to take advantage of this opportunity and this momentum that we have and continue to focus on getting better."
That is something that the Niners need to do as they continue to lose ground in the playoff race. Another NFC West title is already a longshot given the lead the 7-1 Arizona Cardinals have opened up.
"We're a hard-working team. Same as we've always been. We just have to finish games," said Kaepernick.
Despite multiple weapons on offense, the Niners have struggled to move the ball and score points and that has impacted their ability to run the ball. All of those issues need to be corrected going forward, but that is easier said than done when taking on the Saints in the Superdome.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 27, 49ers 20
11/09 10:58:19 ET