By Sam McPherson

For 31 seasons, the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers played each other twice a year as members of the NFC West Division, and in those times from 1970-2000, the 49ers got the best of the moribund Saints by quite a bit. In fact, San Francisco lost only 17 of those 62 matchups during that divisional stretch.

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These days, of course, the two teams play in different divisions, and they’ve played just 12 times in the last 15-plus seasons, with the 49ers losing seven times. As the Saints prepare to come to town next weekend to face San Francisco at Levi’s Stadium for the first time, it’s New Orleans that still should have the upper hand in this longtime NFC rivalry.

Saints Season Record: 3-4

After an 0-3 start to the season that saw New Orleans lose twice by a combined four points, the team has rallied to win three of its last four games: Those wins have come by a combined nine points. The Saints clearly are used to playing in close games, and this is primarily because of their defensive woes. New Orleans is second in the NFL in scoring offense but just 31st in scoring defense.

Right now, the Saints are flying high after a 25-20 win over the visiting Seattle Seahawks in Week 8. Trailing by a point entering the fourth quarter on Sunday, New Orleans outscored Seattle in the final 15 minutes of the game to get the big win. The Saints now trail the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South Division by 1.5 games.

Saints On Offense

It starts and stops with Drew Brees when it comes to the New Orleans offense. He is doing his usual thing in 2016, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, while throwing for 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions so far. At age 37, Brees shows no signs of slowing down this season, and the Saints are No. 2 in the NFL right now, gaining 415 yards per game.

The mediocre ground game is augmented by Brees and his receiving corps: Four different players have at least 25 catches already this season, and each of those four players also has at least two TD receptions as well. Brandin Cooks (36 receptions, 530 yards, five TDs), Michael Thomas (42, 500, 3) and Willie Snead (34, 439, 2) are all formidable wide receivers, while former Stanford standout Coby Fleener (25, 317, 2) is the tight end for New Orleans.

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Saints On Defense

Allowing 397.4 yards per game right now, the New Orleans defense ranks 28th in the NFL in yardage allowed and 31st in points allowed (30.7 per game). Obviously, that’s not very good. Former Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen is the defensive coordinator for the Saints, and he is struggling to get this unit performing well.

Linebacker Craig Robinson is in the NFL’s Top 10 for tackles this season, but this defense has forced just nine turnovers in seven games so far. New Orleans actually has a solid run defense (18th in the league, giving up 110.7 yards per game on the ground), but it’s easy to pass on the Saints (29th in the league, giving up 286.7 yards through the air).

Saints Players to Watch

New Orleans is going to get its yards and TDs through the air with Brees & Co., but running backs Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower are capable of carrying the offensive load, too, if given the proper openings. They’ve combined for 529 yards on the ground this season, and if the 49ers defense can’t stop these two, it’s going to be a long day at Levi’s.

Defensively, Robinson is all over the field and must be accounted for on every snap. But defensive tackle Nick Fairley leads the team with 3.5 sacks from his interior line position, so the 49ers will have to make sure he is unable to get the jump and push up the middle on every play. Meanwhile, defensive end Cameron Jordan can both cover on pass plays and sack the QB, so the defensive line could be a problem for the San Francisco offense.

Outlook

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This isn’t a good game for the 49ers coming out of the bye week, simply because the Saints offense is going to score 40 points on this San Francisco defense. The 49ers have given up the most points in the league, so the matchup doesn’t favor the home team at all. The San Francisco offense isn’t good enough to get into a true shootout with New Orleans, but playing at home, we expect the 49ers to play hard in front of the hometown fans. It just won’t be enough to outscore Brees. Look for the Saints to win the game by three touchdowns, somewhere in the neighborhood of a 45-24 margin.