(CBS Local) — The NFC has three 10-2 teams vying for that top playoff seed and the coveted home-field advantage it brings. The San Francisco 49ers, with their stifling defense, are one of those teams. They’ll face another — the New Orleans Saints — on Sunday. The Saints’ defense are no slouches themselves, never mind veteran quarterback Drew Brees. The Seattle Seahawks are the third team, and they currently hold the tiebreaker in the NFC West, given their overtime win over the 49ers a month ago. Those division rivals will see each other again on the last Sunday of the season.
But the relevance of that Week 17 matchup depends, in part, on the outcome of the 49ers’ Week 14 matchup with the Saints. The 49ers come in looking like the better team. SportsLine senior analyst Larry Hartstein explains why Vegas sees it that way. “This line was (3), now it’s (2.5). And basically people are saying the 49ers are a much better team because that home-field edge for the Saints, it’s usually 3-3.5 points. But here they are getting just 2.5. That is pretty striking. Plus, the 49ers have covered four straight as the underdog, including last week. They go to Baltimore, which had been destroying everyone. They almost win and lose 20-17. The Saints are just 5-9 as home favorites against the number, 3-7 in their last 10 home games ATS. A lot of things pointing to San Fran.”
The game will be played on the field, where a couple of factors could weigh a little more heavily in this matchup of evenly matched teams. The 49ers are coming off a brutal game in Baltimore, where they came up just short against the Ravens. And this week, they play out east again. But instead of making multiple trips to and from the Bay Area, they just stayed. “It’s their second straight road game,” as Hartstein points out. “They didn’t come back from Baltimore, which is a very smart move, because we have seen how that can impact a team doing two cross-country trips. That is one thing going in their favor. But this was a violent game in Baltimore. I don’t know if you saw that but that was so physical. That was a championship, heavyweight bout. Now, to ask them to do that again at New Orleans, a tough place to play, that is one thing that might have you leaning Saints.”
It gets worse. This will be the 49ers third straight game against a division leader. The Saints last played on Thanksgiving against the 3-9 Atlanta Falcons.
Despite the extra rest, the Saints have some injury concerns. Their usually strong offensive line has been without left tackle Terron Armstead, who suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago against the Carolina Panthers. He returned to practice mid-week, but left guard Andrus Peat, who suffered a forearm injury in that same game, did not. The Saints may struggle to protect Drew Brees’ blind side from a ferocious 49ers pass rush that’s piled up 45 sacks so far. The 49ers defense, in general, may be the best in the NFL, allowing just 250.9 yards and 15.2 points per game. Linebacker Fred Warner was just named NFC Defensive Player of the month for November. Defensive end Nick Bosa won the honor in October.
And while the Saints offense can put up yards and points — Brees has had a long, productive career as a passer, and wide receiver Michael Thomas leads the NFL in catches and yards (by a lot) — the unit hasn’t been nearly as prolific this season as in previous seasons. And they haven’t faced a top-tier defense since the Chicago Bears in Week 7. As Hartstein explains, “if you think about who the Saints have played, they haven’t played a defense like this. They have faced the Falcons twice, the Bucs twice, the Jaguars, the Cardinals. They have been feasting on bad defenses now they play the number one team in total defense, the number one team in scoring defense. An entirely different challenge against the 49ers.”
The 49ers play the Saints Sunday @ 10 a.m. PT.