57F Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA
History, not the resurgent San Francisco 49ers, might be the biggest obstacle facing the surging New Orleans Saints in their NFC divisional playoff game this weekend.
In order to move closer to their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons, the Saints must win their first-ever playoff road game Saturday against the 49ers, who return to the postseason for the first time in nine years.
After winning its final eight regular-season games then overcoming a four-point halftime deficit to beat Detroit 45-28 in last weekend's wild-card round, New Orleans (14-3) looks very much like a Super Bowl contender as the NFC's No. 3 seed.
"We just focus on winning," coach Sean Payton said.
The Saints have averaged 37.6 points while winning four of their last five postseason games, including the 31-17 victory over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV. However, New Orleans' lone defeat during that span came when they were upset 41-36 at Seattle last season.
New Orleans is 0-4 in playoff road games, joining Cincinnati (0-5) as the only teams to lose all of their postseason contests away from home.
Whether or not New Orleans' dubious playoff road history will linger Saturday remains to be seen, but Payton does not believe it makes a difference.
"You win 13, 14 games now, and you're trying to find something," he said. "When you start playing well on the road and home, you're probably a better team and we've been able to do that."
New Orleans was 5-3 away from the Superdome in 2011, but nothing seemed to come easy.
The Saints rallied to beat Carolina 30-27 on Oct. 9, then lost 26-20 at Tampa Bay a week later. They also lost 31-21 to the then-winless Rams in St. Louis.
New Orleans needed overtime to win 26-23 at Atlanta and 22-17 at Tennessee on a red-zone stand that ended with a sack. The Saints' five lowest-scoring games came away from home.
Now, they must face a San Francisco team that gave up 10.9 points per game while going 7-1 at home in 2011.
"This will be a good challenge for us," Payton said. "Not just playing on the road, but traveling west."
The 49ers (13-3), who won the NFC West and earned the NFC's No. 2 seed under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, are back in the playoffs for the first time since losing 31-6 at Tampa Bay in 2002.
"You tend to be a little jealous of the guys that are playing in the playoffs," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "We'll be one of eight teams, and hopefully after we'll be one of four. We're going to enjoy this."
Though this is the first playoff meeting between the teams, New Orleans has averaged 31.0 points during a six-game winning streak over San Francisco that dates to a 38-0 home loss Jan. 6, 2002. Two of those victories came at Candlestick Park, including 25-22 on Sept. 20, 2010, in the most recent matchup.
Drew Brees has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,475 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions while going 5-0 against the 49ers.
Brees, who needs one TD pass to match Johnny Unitas' record of at least one in 49 straight games, was 33 of 43 for 466 yards and three touchdowns as New Orleans set a playoff record with 466 total yards against the Lions.
"We were pulling out all the stops," Brees said. "We play aggressive. We're not going to apologize for that. We're not going to pull the reins back. It's pedal to the metal."
Brees will certainly take that approach on the road where he's completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 758 yards with four TDs and one interception in playoff losses at Chicago and Seattle.
While the Saints' high-powered offense is likely to provide the stiffest test of the season for San Francisco's daunting defense that ranked fourth in the NFL allowing 308.2 total yards, their own defensive performance could be the difference this weekend.
The Saints have allowed at least 34 points in each of their last three road playoff games and yielded an average of 165.5 yards on the ground all-time away from home in the postseason.
Behind Frank Gore , San Francisco ranked eighth in league averaging 127.8 rushing yards. With 7,625 career yards, Gore is the NFL's all-time leading rusher without a postseason appearance.
"There are a number of things that (the 49ers) do offensively, but they've been very consistent at being physical up front and blocking with power and finding ways to create big plays in the running game," said Payton, whose team ranked 12th giving up 108.6 yards per game on the ground.
Though Gore ran for 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns this season, he averaged 53.6 and scored three times in his final eight games. He's averaged 68.8 yards and scored once in four games versus New Orleans.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), passing yards (3,144) and passer rating (90.7), but faces a Saints defense that had the second-most blitzes in the league with 365.
"I had a great season up to this point, but (that) just got us a ticket to the dance like everybody else," Smith said.
He's posted a 65.0 passer rating while throwing three touchdowns and five interceptions in three games against the Saints.