49ers lock horns with Saints for critical NFC battle

Field Level Media

December 05, 2019 at 2:02 am.

The New Orleans Saints were the first NFL team to clinch a spot in the playoffs. Now they’re trying to enhance their seeding.

The San Francisco 49ers seem headed to the playoffs also, but their standing has slipped.

The 49ers visit the Saints on Sunday in a game that will have a significant effect on the pecking order atop the NFC.

The Saints, 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are tied at 10-2, and the San Francisco-New Orleans winner will hold that head-to-head tiebreaker. The Saints hold the tiebreaker on the Seahawks, who have a leg up against their NFC West rival 49ers, who would be a wild card if the season ended today.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after New Orleans clinched its third consecutive NFC South title with a 26-18 victory at the Atlanta Falcons on Thanksgiving night. “We have a list of goals and objectives. We just want to knock them down one by one, but at the end of the day, let’s just keep it simple right now.

“Let’s just focus on playing our best football. I still think it’s out there on both sides of the ball.”

The Saints had three takeaways and nine sacks against the Falcons, but they also were penalized nine times for 121 yards and allowed Atlanta to recover three onside kicks — though one was negated by a Falcons penalty — and have a late chance to tie.

“We were misaligned on two of them,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said of the onside kicks. “We have to work more on that and we will. We’re going to have to fix that obviously. That’ll cost you a game and almost cost us the game the other day.”

The excessive penalties continued a trend that has reached four games since the Saints’ bye. In that time, New Orleans has been penalized 42 times for 410 yards.

San Francisco was the last team in the NFL to lose a game this season, but it has now lost two of its last four.

“The more you win, the more people like to say, ‘Isn’t it easier or more relaxing now that you have a good record?'” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s totally opposite. The more you win in this league, the harder it gets, and the harder it gets in the playoffs.

“You can never sit back and relax. As soon as you do, your season’s over, so every single week from the first week to the 17th week, you have to treat it like the playoffs and like a playoff game, and when you do get to this and have the record us or the Saints do, nobody looks past you. Everybody’s playing it like it’s a playoff game.”

The 49ers managed just 119 yards and three points in the second half of a last-second 20-17 loss at the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

“In crucial situations, we need to make more plays,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “That’s what separates a lot of these games — just a couple of plays here and there. I like the mindset that our guys have. We’ll bounce back.”

That game was played in windy, rainy conditions. But the 49ers spent the week in much better weather in Bradenton, Fla., in order to avoid two cross-country flights, and this game will be played inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The 49ers could get left tackle Joe Staley (finger) and defensive end Dee Ford (quad, hamstring) back from injury this week. Both were limited in practice on Wednesday. Running back Matt Breida (ankle) is on track to play after practicing in full.