Leaving the playing field of Candlestick Park on September 20th 2010, the San Francisco 49ers were a defeated group. They came tantalizingly close to knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football, a feat which would have undoubtedly instilled confidence into the 2010 49ers. San Francisco 49ers players and fans alike had their hearts ripped out as they helplessly gazed at a Garrett Hartley kick fluttering through the up-rights, ending the game, and handing the 49ers their second loss in as many games. A sour taste deeply embedded in the mouths of 49ers fans, as what appeared to be the team's first win of the season was abruptly stripped away. Never truly recovering from a string of early defeats, the 49ers finished the 2010 campaign with an uninspired 6-10 record. The loss against the Saints on that cool September evening set the table for the remainder of the 49ers' season.
Less than 15 months have passed since the crushing defeat at the hand of the Saints, and the changes in the Bay Area have been drastic. Coming off a 6-win season, lead by Mike Singletary (arguably one of the worst head coaching experiments in recent memory) the expectations for the 2011 season could not have been lower. Yet the 49ers stunned everyone, finishing 2011 with a 13-3 record. The answer to the 49ers woes; Jim Harbaugh was coaxed from his head coaching position at Stanford, and signed as the 49ers head coach last January. A rookie NFL head coach, Jim Harbaugh has injected air into the sails of the once deflated 49ers franchise. Miraculously, despite inheriting a team that couldn't do anything right the season before he arrived in San Francisco, Coach Harbaugh guided his squad to an impressive 13 wins. A turn around unforeseen by virtually all football analysts, the 49ers finished the season as the second best team in the NFC, earning a playoff berth and a first round bye.
A shot at redemption is now within the grasps of the 49ers. San Francisco will meet the New Orleans Saints this upcoming Saturday, again at Candlestick Park, and again the eyes of the entire nation will be fixed on the game which is being broadcasted nationally. The stakes are much higher this time though, as the victorious team's Super Bowl dreams remain alive, as they will advance to the NFC championship game, while the losing team is sent home.
Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game pits two teams against each other who have drastically different styles of play. The explosive pass-oriented offense of the New Orleans Saints which has been their key to success is a far cry from the 49ers' style of play. While the Saints rely on Drew Brees and their high octane offensive prowess to win games, the 49ers lean on the traditional football ideology; running the ball and stopping the run. Both squads have seen similar success, as each was victorious 13 times this season, but have done so in profoundly different ways.
The 49ers style is somewhat of an anomaly in the modern age of the NFL. The shift toward a pass-first, high scoring league has taken place; rules have been altered by the NFL in hopes of creating a "more exciting", higher scoring product. Days when "smash mouth" football was the proverbial formula for victory, have long since passed. The NFL is now awash with teams who possess explosive passing attacks. Apparently the 49ers did not get the memo. Going against the grain, the 49ers have flourished using a simple recipe: run the ball, stop the run and don't turn the ball over. The role of the quarterback in the 49ers offense is much less vital to the team's success, in comparison to other pass-happy teams. Yet, the 49ers have experienced much of the same success. The 49ers are doing it their way. They're winning games the "old school" way in what is arguably the most pass-oriented era that pro football has ever seen.
When playing the Saints, fighting fire with fire has resulted in failure for the opposing team. Similarly pass-happy, the Detroit Lions tried their hand at trading touchdowns with the Saints. As a result, their brief stint in the NFL playoffs was abruptly ended at the hands of Drew Brees and company. Attempting to go shot-for-shot with the Saints' offense is impractical, as the Saints have established themselves as an on offensive juggernaut. Defeating the New Orleans Saints will require more than just a high-flying passing attack. This is music to the San Francisco 49ers' ears, as an elite passing attack is not present in their arsenal.
A combination of a formidable ground attack and an imposing defense has earned the San Francisco 49ers 13 wins up to this point, and appears to be an attractive method in defeating the New Orleans Saints. With 17 games under their belt, the Saints winning formula is by no means confidential. Their offense consistently picks opposing defenses apart with their elite passing attack. Racking up massive point totals, the Saints defense has little to worry about, as if they hold their opponent to a reasonably low score, they will typically emerge victorious. Slowing the Saints' offense will be a tall task, but observing the 49ers defense, an argument can be made that they are the most dominant unit the Saints have seen all year. Malicious against the run and forcing an impressive 42 turnovers, the 49ers defense appears to be primed to keep the Saints within check.
Keeping Drew Brees on the sidelines will be paramount if the 49ers have any hope of emerging victorious this Saturday. The 49ers offense possesses the ability to go on extended clock-devouring drives. Their effective rushing attack coupled with an efficient passing game has been sufficient thus far, and has earned the 49ers victories in 13 of 16 games this season. This formula has the potential to create elongated drives which will undoubtedly limit the time Drew Brees is on the field, which is crucial as he cannot hurt the 49ers from the sidelines.
The 2011 San Francisco 49ers "old school" approach is undervalued by analysts and fans as they are busy gazing in amazement at high-powered offenses throughout the league. The San Francisco way is less exciting and less renowned, yet in the end, just as successful. The "old school" formula appears to be as likely as any, to knock-off the New Orleans Saints, and the 49ers are the epitome of "old school".
Mortified and possibly still haunted by the Garret Hartley game-winning kick of 15 months ago, the 49ers have the ultimate shot at redemption. San Francisco football fans yearn that this meeting between the Saints and the 49ers ends contrarily to their last at Candlestick Park; and that this time the Saints are the team exiting the field as a defeated squad.