NFL Preview - San Francisco (7-2-1) at New Orleans (5-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said he wants to go with the hot-hand at the quarterback position.
It is still unknown whether that will be Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick, but what the Niners do know is that they have to deal with the red-hot New Orleans Saints this Sunday on enemy turf.
San Francisco has lived up to its billing as NFC contenders one season after besting the New Orleans Saints in a divisional playoff game before coming up short against the New York Giants in the conference title contest.
The 49ers lead the NFC West with a 7-2-1 record and are undefeated in their past four games. That does include a 24-24 tie versus the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 11, a contest in which Smith suffered a concussion.
Smith was hoping to start last Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears, but was not cleared medically in time. That opened the door for Kaepernick to make his first NFL start and he did not disappoint against a very tough defense in a 32-7 win.
The 2011 second-round pick guided San Francisco to scores on each of its first four drives and finished the game 16-of-23 passing with a pair of touchdown throws, one each to tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
His performance was the talk of the town and Harbaugh's comments after the game preheated the oven for a quarterback controversy.
"We'll see. I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand. And we've got two quarterbacks that have got a hot hand," said Harbaugh. "So, thought Colin did an outstanding job. Thought he did a great job. Poise in the pocket, pushing the ball and throwing with accuracy. Did a nice job running the game plan."
Harbaugh, was on the sidelines Monday night despite being sent to the hospital last Thursday due to an irregular heartbeat that needed treatment, wouldn't commit to a starter on Wednesday.
"We'll let it play out," he said.
Though reports say that Smith had yet to be medically cleared, Harbaugh said he expected his season-opening starter to be so this week and will make a decision that is best for the team.
San Francisco will face a test on its path to a repeat division title as it will play two straight and four of its next five on the road. That starts against a Saints team that had won six in a row over the Niners before last year's playoff setback.
The 49ers haven't beaten the Saints in the regular season since Jan. 6, 2002 in New Orleans.
No team in the NFC is perhaps as hot as the Saints, who have crawled back to the .500 mark after an 0-4 start by winning three straight and five of six. Their latest win came at the Oakland Raiders on Sunday as Drew Brees fueled the 38-17 triumph with three touchdown passes.
Looking a bit lost in the wake of the bounty scandal that went down this past offseason, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, filling in for the suspended Sean Payton after serving his own ban, credited the team for battling through the adversity.
"At 0-4, they stuck together and continued to work hard," said Vitt. "They didn't point fingers. It's paying dividends now."
With the Atlanta Falcons pacing the NFC South with a 9-1 mark, a wild card seems to be the Saints' best hopes of returning to the playoffs. And it isn't shocking that their three-game win streak has encompassed November given the team's 14-game winning streak in the month dating back to 2009.
"I think it's the process. They come in everyday as a player and try to get better. We try to get better as a team. By November, you kind of define who you are and get a little bit of confidence. That being said, I know what our November record has been. The past doesn't dictate the future. It's going to take another great week. With this team coming in, it will be a great challenge," noted Vitt on Monday.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Who will be under center for the Niners is the biggest mystery leading into the game.
Though he has failed to live up to the hype of being the top overall pick of the 2005 draft, Smith has been a consistent presence at the quarterback spot for the 49ers and nearly took them to the Super Bowl a season ago. Smith has completed 70 percent of his passes in 2012 and has 13 touchdown passes to just five interceptions while throwing for 1,731 yards.
Normally, an unwritten rule states that a player doesn't lose his starting job due to injury, but Harbaugh said on Monday that he does not subscribe to such a guide.
Should Smith not be medically cleared for this game, or if Harbaugh simply decides to stick to Kaepernick, the untested 25-year-old will bring more mobility and a threat to scramble to the gameplan, though he has been sacked four times and fumbled the ball twice -- neither recovered by the other team -- in his last two appearances.
Still, it is hard to argue with what Kaepernick did against a respected Bears defense on Monday.
"It just felt good to be back out on the football field playing," he said. "I mean, I thought we did a good job as an offense. We put points on the board as an offense, our defense did a great job out there holding them. We came out on top, so that was good."
Speaking of the defense, linebacker Aldon Smith was a giant thorn in the Bears' side, recording a career-high 5 1/2 sacks in the win along with two forced fumbles. Smith now leads the NFL with 15 sacks this season after setting a new franchise rookie record with 14 sacks a season ago.
Aldon Smith's sack total versus the Bears was the second-highest single-game total in club history, behind only defensive end Fred Dean's six sacks versus New Orleans on Nov. 13, 1983. His 29 career sacks trail only Reggie White (31) and Derrick Thomas (30) for the most by an NFL player through his first two seasons in league history.
"I really just try to make people respect my power. I don't think I'm one of the bigger linebackers or ends, but I want people to know there's some power in here too," Aldon Smith said of his technique after beating Chicago.
Smith and his fellow star linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman face worthy competition this weekend in the form of Brees, who extended his NFL record of 53 straight games with a touchdown pass last weekend.
Making Brees tough is the fact that he spreads the ball out to many different receivers, chief among them tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore, and running back Darren Sproles, who is on track to return for this game after missing three in a row with a left hand injury. He was close to returning versus the Raiders following surgery, but swelling in the hand led him to be held out.
Sproles is a big weapon for Brees as he averages 4.5 yard on 26 carries this season while adding 39 receptions for 323 yards with four touchdowns.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins helped key New Orleans' win last weekend, coming up with six tackles, a pass defensed and an interception he returned 55 yards for a score in the opening quarter.
His first pick since 2010 was just the latest example of an improving Saints club.
"I continue to say the same thing. We go out now, we practice the right way, we prepare the right way, we watch film. We do all the little things that we need to do to find ways to win games. I think we are doing a good job of that now," said linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
A possible playoff preview is set to go down in New Orleans and the battle figures to be a close one.
Kaepernick could throw a wrench in the Saints' preparation plans due to his difference in style from Smith, who was excellent versus New Orleans in the playoffs last year. He threw for 299 yards, ran for a score and threw three touchdown passes, including the 14-yard game-winner to Davis with nine seconds to play.
That score capped a 34-point frame by the clubs and came just 1:26 after Brees hooked up with Graham on a 66-yard score.
The Saints will need to be careful not getting over-excited for this game given last season's results.
"They eliminated us in the playoffs last year. At the end of that game, our hats were off to them. They won 15 games. Take a look at them statistically as to where they were a year ago when they beat us," said Vitt.
"We ran into a buzzsaw last year and they beat us. This is a new season. This is a new set of challenges. This is a new week and this is our next opponent."
Vitt should have his club focused and the looming quarterback controversy plaguing the Niners' locker room won't be a welcomed addition at all.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, 49ers 17
11/22 08:57:32 ET