(CBS San Francisco) — The schedule has not been kind to the San Francisco 49ers of late. This Sunday’s matchup with the New Orleans Saints will be the third game in a row against a division leader. So far the team has acquitted itself well.

The 49ers started the stretch with a dominant 37-8 win over the Green Bay Packers. Their stifling defense shut down a dangerous Packers attack, holding Aaron Rodgers to a mere 104 yards passing and sacking the quarterback five times. They then lost by a field goal to the red-hot Baltimore Ravens in another impressive showing. Lamar Jackson was limited to just 105 yards passing, even if he did collect 101 yards on the ground. Can they pick up another win in New Orleans and keep pace with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West race?

Regardless, the 49ers have proved to everyone that their strong start was much more than a gift of scheduling. And even a loss to another contender reveals more of this team’s true character. As CBS Los Angeles sports anchor Greg Wolf opines, “I think we’ve learned as much if not more about this 49ers team as we did in that loss on the road in Baltimore as we did over that signature win of their season, when they beat the Green Bay Packers. This team went toe to toe with Lamar Jackson in Baltimore in those awful conditions back east. They slugged it out with that football team, and they were right there. Possible Super Bowl preview for this team. I think we’ve learned a lot about them, that this team is for real.”

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A playoff run is well within reach for these 49ers, particularly behind a defense that, despite the obvious talent, no one expected to be this good. The Niners allow a league-low 250.9 yards per game and a paltry 15.2 points, which is the second fewest in the NFL. They’ve sacked opposing quarterbacks 45 times over 12 games, the second-best total in the league. The unit sports consecutive defensive players of the month, with defensive end Nick Bosa in October and linebacker Fred Warner in November.

They may enjoy some extra advantage this Sunday. As Wolf points out, “Drew Brees is 40 years old. That [Saints] offensive line has been very, very good. Brees is great about getting rid of the football fast. But they may be down both Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat on that offensive line. So I think that could be a big difference in this football game. I think that 49ers defense is going to make their presence felt.”

As dominant as the the defense has been and should continue to be, they’ll need more from the offense down the stretch to make the Ravens matchup a Super Bowl preview. And that starts under center this week. “What the 49ers are going to need to happen though is Jimmy Garoppolo is going to have to step up. He’s going to have to make plays this Sunday on the road in New Orleans. This Saints rushing defense, they’ve not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 41 straight games. They’re fourth in the NFL against the rush. Can Garoppolo step up? Can he be consistent? Can he make plays? It’s huge for him and this 49ers offense that they got George Kittle back. He’s sort of Garoppolo’s safety blanket. So I think that’s big.”

Garoppolo is enjoying a solid season so far, with 21 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. His 241.3 yards per game isn’t among the league leaders, but with a ground attack that’s good for 148 yards per game and a defense that wins on field position, Garoppolo’s stats don’t have to stand out. But he will need to make more big plays when it matters. He’ll need to start in New Orleans.

The 49ers play the Saints Sunday @ 10 a.m. 

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