The 49ers chose wisely.
The team, especially the coaching staff, focused its bye-week preparations on the New Orleans Saints, and that's exactly who will come marching into Candlestick Park a week from today after the Saints beat the Lions 45-28 today.
The 49ers could have played one of three teams -- the Saints, Giants or Falcons - and they raised eyebrows by singling out the Saints as the team they expected to play. Most teams in that situation would avoid zeroing in on one opponent so as not to motivate the others.
The tack, like everything Jim Harbaugh does, likely had a bit of strategy behind it. Looking ahead to the Saints served to not only flatter - and soften - the New Orleans squad, it was meant to inspire their opponent, the Lions, to topple one of the hottest teams in the league right now. The Saints have won nine straight games. Detroit would have played in Green Bay next weekend had they won.
Harbaugh on Friday said he and his staff would watch the game from team headquarters where they ostensibly were working on the game plan against the Saints. "Well, the team is playing at as high a level as anybody in football," Harbaugh said of New Orleans. "The quarterback, it's just a master of the obvious stating something like this, is playing as well or better than anybody who has ever played the game. It's a great team."
His players echoed that sentiment this week. Defensive end Justin Smith said the players watched game film of New Orleans on Friday. "Their timing routes, their back-shoulder fades - we paused the film and the ball's halfway down the field and the guy's still running straight," Smith said of the Saints' proficiency in the passing game. "So they do some pretty awesome stuff on offense. Defensively, we know we're going to have to pressure (Drew) Brees, hit him, make him uncomfortable."
The game promises to be a classic strength-vs.-strength contest. San Francisco's defense finished the regular season No. 1 against the run and No. 2 in scoring defense. The Saints, meanwhile, had the top-rated offense in the league, one that averaged 342 yards a game through the air. Brees had 466 passing yards and three touchdowns against the Lions tonight.
Although the 49ers did not play the Saints in the regular season, they kicked off the exhibition season in New Orleans.
Blitzing typically is done sparingly in the preseason when coaches try hard to avoid injuries. The Saints, however, called all-out blitzes throughout the game and ended up sacking the 49ers' quarterbacks six times in their 24-3 victory. San Francisco's starting quarterback, Alex Smith, absorbed several big hits in the opening quarter, and the Aug. 12 game is likely to be raised inside the 49ers' locker room and meeting rooms this week.
The Saints and 49ers began the season against one another. One of their seasons will end at the hands of the other. The winner is likely to face the defensing Super Bowl champion Packers in Green Bay. The loser will head to Hawaii to coach the Pro Bowl.
-- Matt Barrows