49ers focused on Saints all along
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers chose wisely.
The team focused its bye-week preparations on the New Orleans Saints, and they will come marching into Candlestick Park next weekend after beating Detroit, 45-28, Saturday in an NFC wild-card game.
The 49ers could have faced one of three teams -- the Saints, New York Giants or Atlanta -- and they raised eyebrows by singling out the Saints as the team they expected to host next Saturday.
Most teams in that situation would avoid zeroing in on one opponent to not motivate the others. The tack, like everything coach Jim Harbaugh does, likely had a bit of strategy behind it.
Looking ahead to the Saints served to not only flatter the New Orleans squad, it might have been aimed to inspire their opponent, the Lions, to topple perhaps the league's hottest team.
The Saints have won nine consecutive games. Had the Lions won, they would have played at Green Bay next weekend.
Harbaugh on Friday said he and his staff would watch the game from team headquarters, where they ostensibly were working on the game plan against the Saints.
"The team is playing at as high a level as anybody in football," Harbaugh said of New Orleans. "The quarterback [Drew Brees] -- it's just a master of the obvious stating something like this -- is playing as well or better than anybody who has ever played the game. It's a great team."
His players echoed that sentiment last week. Defensive end Justin Smith said he and teammates watched game film of the Saints on Friday.
"Their timing routes, their back-shoulder fades -- we paused the film, and the ball's halfway down the field, and the guy's still running straight," Smith said of the Saints' proficiency in the passing game. "So they do some pretty awesome stuff on offense.
"Defensively, we know we're going to have to pressure Brees, hit him, make him uncomfortable."
The game promises to be a classic strength-vs.-strength contest. San Francisco's defense finished the regular season No. 1 against the run and No. 2 in points allowed.
New Orleans, meanwhile, had the top-rated offense, which averaged 334 yards through the air. Brees had 466 passing yards and three touchdowns against the Lions.
Many of the 49ers players used the off week for much-needed rest and recovery from injuries. Harbaugh didn't treat the bye as a typical break like the one each club gets midseason.
Many of the 49ers have been at work each day, treating this time as a key opportunity to gain a bit of a head start.
"I don't feel like this is a young team. I feel like this is a team that's mature enough, that understands the opportunity we have in front of us and that we need to take advantage of these opportunities," quarterback Alex Smith said.
Although the 49ers did not play the Saints in the regular season, they kicked off the exhibition season in New Orleans.
Blitzing typically is done sparingly in the preseason. The Saints, however, called all-out blitzes throughout the game and recorded six sacks in their 24-3 victory.
San Francisco's starting quarterback, Alex Smith, absorbed several big hits in the opening quarter, and the Aug. 12 game is likely to be raised inside the 49ers' locker room and meeting rooms this week.
First Published January 9, 2012 12:09 am