Frank Gore, like all San Francisco 49ers fans, said that he would have a special interest in Monday night's matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. A Saints loss would have clinched a bye week in the playoffs for San Francisco. Instead, the Saints destroyed the Falcons by the score of 45-16, won the NFC South, clinched a home playoff game, and their quarterback, Drew Brees, broke Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards ... in impressive fashion.
The Saints look to be a dangerous playoff opponent. Very dangerous. They are the team that just will not go away in the race for the NFC's number two spot in the playoffs. With so many weapons at Brees' disposal, it will take a special defense (like San Francisco) or an equally impressive offense (like Green Bay) to stop the red hot Saints, who have now won seven straight. Home or away, the Saints are hitting their stride at the right time and will be dangerous come January.
The Saints, like the 49ers, are 12-3 on the season. However, San Francisco holds the ti-breaker because of their better conference record. In order to clinch a bye in the playoffs, the 49ers will need to beat the St. Louis Rams on the road during their final game of the season or have the Carolina Panthers beat the Saints in New Orleans. Given the unpredictability of the NFL, the 49ers will need to treat their final game like a must win playoff game, because the Saints and the Panthers play at the same time. So neither will know the result of the other's game until the very end.
One of the criticisms against San Francisco this year has been their lackluster offense. How would the team perform in a shootout against a team like the Saints or Packers? Would their 23 points per game average be enough to keep up? To make matters worse, their passing attack may not get any better. They have been without receiver Joshua Morgan for most of the season, receiver Braylon Edwards has not been Braylon Edwards, Delanie Walker, who was injured this past weekend, may not be ready to go for the playoffs, and Kyle Williams was also hurt against the Seahawks.
Only twice this season has the 49ers offense has scored 30 or more points in a game. Of the other NFC teams that have clinched playoff spots, Green Bay has had 10 such games, New Orleans has had 9, while Detroit and Atlanta have each had 6. The 49ers have only played one of those teams (a victory over Detroit) this season.
If the season ended today
If the season ended today, the Green Bay Packers (1st seed) and San Francisco 49ers (2nd seed) would have the number one and two spots locked up and would not play their first games until the weekend of January 14.
The division winners would be the New Orleans Saints (3rd seed), who would host the Atlanta Falcons (6th seed), and the New York Giants (4th seed), who would host the Detroit Lions (5th seed). The Dallas Cowboys are still in the hunt for that 4th seed spot and could win the NFC East with a win over the Giants in week 17.
Should the Saints win their first playoff game, they would travel to San Francisco while an Atlanta victory would mean a trip to Green Bay for the Falcons.
Should the NFC East champion win their first playoff game, they would travel to Green Bay with a Falcons loss. They would travel to San Francisco with a Saints loss.
Should the Lions win their first playoff game, they would travel to Green bay with a Falcons loss. They would travel to San Francisco with a Saints loss.