The Saints don't often play in poor weather, and this year they had just one game even remotely affected by the elements. On Dec. 11 in Nashville it was a breezy 41°. Tennessee held New Orleans to 22 points, and the Saints needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win. Still, New Orleans amassed 437 yards, and the run game—26 carries, 114 yards on the choppy Tennessee turf—was what coach Sean Payton hopes it will be on a muddy January day in San Francisco or a frigid one at Lambeau. The Saints believe their ground game travels well, and they have reason to. Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, likely to get the bulk of the carries between the tackles, played in cold weather in college (Illinois and Tiffin in Ohio, respectively), as did the invaluable scatback Darren Sproles (Kansas State). Think back to last year's wild-card debacle at Seattle, when injuries left New Orleans with Julius Jones, who'd been cut by Seattle, and Heath Evans, primarily a blocker, with the game on the line. These playoffs will be different.
Don't expect Drew Brees (who played at Purdue) to fold outside the Superdome, either. He'll know when to take chances downfield—with wideouts Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and Robert Meacham and tight end Jimmy Graham—and when to hit a checkdown receiver like Sproles to keep the chains moving.
But the Saints' Achilles' heel could be the same as Green Bay's: Both teams have been dreadful against the run. A team with massive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers should not give up 4.9 yards per carry. Those two and tackle Sedrick Ellis simply have to lift their games in January. The Saints are much improved against the pass, thanks in part to cornerback Jabari Greer's resurgence, but if opponents are able to pound it on the ground—a strength of the Niners, not so much the Packers—and keep the ball out of Brees's hands, New Orleans will have to score practically every time Brees touches the ball. He can do that, but it's not something you want to rely on in the playoffs.
It will come down to the Saints' defense trying to keep up with the offense. Pretty tough to match the Greatest Show on Turf II, but if the D comes reasonably close, this team can win it all.
Plays of 10 or more yards by the Saints' offense, most in the league in 2011. New Orleans converted a league-high 41.3% of its third-and-10-plus situations and led the NFL in yards per play at 6.69.
Plays of 10 or more yards allowed by the Saints' defense, tied for fifth most in the league. Because foes are so often playing catch-up, New Orleans yielded 259.8 passing yards per game, third most in the NFL.
ON THE SPOT
Over the previous two seasons Reggie Bush caught 81 passes from Drew Brees out of the backfield. In his first year in New Orleans, Bush's replacement, Darren Sproles, had 86 receptions. It's easy to see why Brees trusts Sproles—he does more with his chances. The former Charger averaged about two more yards per catch this year than Bush did in '09--10, and he has a knack for finding the first-down marker. It will be intriguing to see how teams cover Sproles. Would the Niners use a quick inside 'backer like NaVorro Bowman or bring a safety like Dashon Goldson? Whoever is on him, Sproles will be a matchup nightmare, as he has been all year.
BILL FRAKES (GRAHAM)
JIMMY FOUND In his second season Graham emerged as an elite tight end—his 1,320 receiving yards surpassed Kellen Winslow's previous record for a tight end; Graham finished 17 yards behind the Pats' Rob Gronkowski.
TOM DIPACE (SPROLES)