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By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The San Francisco 49ers found themselves on the losing end of a defensive battle with one NFC South resident last weekend, but this Sunday's road contest against the division-leading New Orleans Saints seems to be trending more toward a shootout.
The Saints, coming off a record-setting offensive performance, try to deal the 49ers a second straight loss as the two clubs battle at the Superdome.
New Orleans put up 625 yards of offense in last Sunday night's 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys, giving the club a split of its past four games following a 5-0 start. Drew Brees threw for nearly 400 yards with four touchdowns and the Saints' ground game totaled over 200 yards.
Brees completed 34-of-41 pass attempts, including 19 straight at one point and was sacked just one time. Wide receiver Marques Colston and running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles each caught seven passes with a receiving touchdown, while wideout Kenny Stills made a 52-yard scoring catch.
"Today was an extremely efficient day on offense ... both in the pass and the run," Brees said. "I know a quarterback should mention the offensive line at every press conference but for real ... these guys were phenomenal."
New Orleans bounced back from a six-point loss to the New York Jets and at 7-2 remained a game ahead of the Carolina Panthers, who deal the Niners a setback last weekend, for first place in the NFC South.
Mark Ingram, Thomas and Sproles all ran for a score as well, with Ingram notching his first career 100-yard rushing game. He totaled 145 yards on 14 carries, while Thomas added 87 yards rushing to his 24 yards receiving.
New Orleans improved to 5-0 at home this season thanks in part to 242 rushing yards, the highest for the club since it posted 249 on Nov. 4, 1990 at Cincinnati.
"We have put a lot of emphasis on the run game. We just wanted to come out here on a national stage and prove to everybody that we could play smash mouth football and run the ball," noted Ingram. "All the running backs worked really hard this week in practice. The line did a great job. It's all on them. It makes our job easy when they dominate the line like that."
The 49ers went into their home meeting with the Panthers having scored at least 31 points in each contest of their five-game winning streak, but that run was snapped in a big way with a 10-9 setback to Carolina.
The two teams combined for 401 total yards and went just 9-for-30 on third down attempts, with the 49ers a paltry 2-for-13. There was also a total of 10 sacks in the game, six for Carolina, and each team had two turnovers.
"We had our chances and opportunities in the game and we just didn't get it done," said San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh. "We played with great effort, especially the defense. But Carolina made more plays and in the end that won it for them."
Frank Gore carried the ball 16 times for 82 yards and added two catches for 21 yards, while quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw for just 91 yards on 11- of-22 passing. He was also picked off once.
San Francisco fell to 6-3 on the season, trailing 9-1 Seattle for the top spot in the NFC West.
"It's unacceptable. We have a number of weapons on offense. We just have to do a better job of making it happen," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
The 49ers lost a big weapon early in the game when tight end Vernon Davis suffered a concussion in the second quarter. Fellow tight end Garrett Celek (hamstring) also suffered an injury, as did defensive tackle Ray McDonald (ankle) and rookie safety Eric Reid (concussion).
The Niners will try to rebound on the road, where they won three times during their recent win streak and haven't lost since a 29-3 defeat at Seattle back in Week 2.
The 49ers had lost six straight regular-season games versus the Saints before a 31-21 victory in New Orleans in November of last year. It was their first road win in this series since Jan. 6, 2002.
Of course, San Francisco's last trip to the Superdome came on Feb. 3 in its Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
"I don't think there will be any emotions because it's a whole other game," said Davis. "The situation is different. We're not playing in the Super Bowl, we're playing for a spot in the playoffs right now at the moment."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Kaepernick has had his ups and downs this season, throwing just nine touchdown passes to six interceptions with a passer rating of 83.0 in nine games. Through 13 games and seven starts last season, he had 10 touchdown throws to three picks with a 98.3 rating.
Not having Davis would be a big blow as he has caught seven of Kaepernick's TD passes this season. His 30 catches and 520 yards also rank second on the club behind only Boldin's 41 grabs and 574 yards.
"Vernon changes defenses. He makes them adjust differently. He makes them do things that they don't normally do. He's a big loss," Kaepernick said after Sunday's game.
The good news is that both Davis and Reid, who was born in Baton Rouge and starred at LSU, did not have symptoms on Wednesday according to Harbaugh and were cleared to practice without contact.
Both would still have to pass NFL-mandated tests at the end of the week to be eligible to play on Sunday.
San Francisco's defense, which ranks fourth in scoring (17.2 points per game) and sixth in total defense (316.8 yards per game), will have linebacker Aldon Smith back in the lineup for a second straight game and he could see a bigger role in trying to shut down Brees.
Smith left the team after Week 3 to undergo substance-abuse treatment and did not start versus the Panthers. He has 4 1/2 sacks on the season and said he was aware he would not play a lot last weekend, but his presence was enough to spark fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Brooks matched a career high with three sacks versus Carolina, giving him a team-high 5 1/2 on the season.
"He's motivation for me to do a good job. He's probably the best pass rusher in the NFL, to be honest with you," said Brooks of Smith. "You got to accept it, that's just how it is. He makes me a better player. I get a chance to watch what he does in practice, I get a chance to watch what he does in the game and just try to implement that in my game as much as possible."
That's high praise given that Brooks has five more years of experience than Smith.
Brooks had a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown last season versus the Saints, one of two picks Brees threw in that game. San Francisco also logged five sacks in the win, with Brooks, Smith and defensive tackle Justin Smith all getting credited with 1 1/2 sacks each.
Brees, though, is coming off his 23rd career four-touchdown game, tying him with Brett Favre for the second most in NFL history. Only Peyton Manning has more with 26.
Colston, meanwhile, returned from a one-game absence due to injury with his best performance of the season. He set season highs in catches and yards (107) while scoring his first TD since Week 1.
Colston hauled in the 60th touchdown catch of his career, all from Brees, and his 7,843 career receiving yards are 12 shy of passing Eric Martin for the most in franchise history.
The Saints rank second in scoring (29.4 PPG) and total offense (422.7 YPG), doing the bulk of their damage through the air. They are averaging just 97.8 rushing yards per game, but their offense would become even more dangerous if they can maintain the balance from last Sunday.
"It's important for us to have that balance, certainly for the team time of possession and all these things sway in a game like that in your favor," said Saints head coach Sean Payton.
The Saints rank 24th in the league versus the rush and go up against a 49ers ground attack that is fourth with 147.7 YPG.
The 49ers have gotten the best of the Saints recently, having also knocked New Orleans out of the divisional round in the 2011 playoffs by a 36-32 score. San Francisco got a 14-yard receiving touchdown from Davis with nine seconds to go in the win, while Kaepernick ran for a score and threw for another one in last season's meeting, which marked his second career start.
Brees was under pressure a lot in that meeting and should be better prepared this time around, even if he isn't looking at this game as anything extra.
"It's nothing about owing. It's nothing about revenge. This is our next game," noted Brees. "It gets us to 8-2 (if we win), and it allows us the opportunity to beat a very, very good opponent."
Brees will likely be a big factor if the Saints do win as he has 15 touchdown passes to four interceptions in six regular-season meetings.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, 49ers 17
11/14 15:46:39 ET
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