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January 13, 2012
One day away: 49ers-Saints matchups to watch

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I'm trying my best to be totally objective, but to me this is the most intriguing matchup of the weekend and one that only would be rivaled by 49ers-Packers or Patriots-Ravens should they occur. Saturday's Saints-49ers game is a true study in contrasts. Something has to give between Drew Brees' prolific offense and Patrick Willis' stonewall defense. Throw in the aggressive natures of the two head coaches, the preseason affair on Aug. 12 and the fact that it's the 30th anniversary of The catch and ... whew, it sends shivers down the spine.

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Here are the key matchups to match in my opinion:

Saints quarterback Drew Brees vs. 49ers safety Dashon Goldson

Brees has had a more prolific season than any other quarterback in the history of the NFL. He is both the brain and the heart of the Saints offense, and stopping him - or merely limiting him to 300 or so passing yards - is the key to beating New Orleans. That will require a team effort by the 49ers' defense, but Goldson will have the biggest role in taking away Brees' longest passes. Part of Brees' effectiveness is that he usually makes the right decisions on where to throw the ball, and he has three wide receiver, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Goldson is the 49ers' top safety, but he can be overly aggressive at times. He must keep the Saints' receivers in front of him to make sure that Brees' big completions don't become back-breaking completions.

Saints left guard Carl Nicks vs. 49ers defensive end Justin Smith

This will be a clash of All Pros. The key to disrupting Brees and the Saints passing attack is collapsing the center of his pocket and throwing the quarterback off rhythm. Smith, fellow defensive end Ray McDonald and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga have been adept at doing that this season. The Saints, however, have built a virtual wall around Brees with Nicks and right guard Jahri Evans, who also was named to the All-Pro team earlier this month. The two New Orleans guards also will try to spark an inside running game with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas that was effective last week in the win over the Lions.

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham vs. 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis

Willis has spent more time covering tight ends than in previous years, and his work against Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew and the Giants' Jake Ballard were highlighted by his coaches. However, Willis never has faced a tight end with Graham's athleticism. A former power forward at the University of Miami, Graham emerged this year to become Brees' favorite target, and he led the team in receptions (99), receiving yards (1,310) and touchdowns (11). Willis, meanwhile, will share coverage duties with several 49ers but promises to match up against Graham when the tight end lines up on the end of the offensive line.

49ers running back Frank Gore vs. Saints inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma

Gore hasn't gone over the 100-yard barrier since Week 9 against the Washington Redskins. That may have been by design. The 49ers coaches used Gore more sparingly in the second half of the season to allow him to recover from a series of nicks and sprains but also to make sure he's fresh for the playoffs. Look for Gore to get the same 20-25 carries he was getting during a five-game streak of 100-plus yard games earlier in the season. Trying to stop him will be middle linebacker Vilma, another University of Miami product who is one of Gore's closest friends off the field.

49ers tight end Vernon Davis vs. Saints safety Roman Harper

Davis caught four passes for 78 yards when the two teams met last season, a 25-22 Saints win. Davis has been more effective of late as he's become more comfortable with the 49ers offense and he had his most prolific day as a pass catcher - 118 receiving yards - in the season finale against the Rams. He promises to be targeted even more with fellow tight end Delanie Walker (jaw) unable to play Saturday. Harper, meanwhile, is one of the Saints best tacklers and their top blitzer. His 7 ½ sacks led the Saints this season and were the most by any defensive back in the league. He twice was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week in 2011. The Saints, however, have had matchup problems with tight ends this season, and they appear to be even more vulnerable with Harper nursing an ankle injury.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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