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Monday, January 9, 2012
Around the NFC West: Bring on the Saints

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Welcome to the blog for the only NFL division with a second-round playoff representative every season since realignment in 2002.

We are under no illusions here. The NFC West has not always produced formidable teams top to bottom. Three other divisions have produced more divisional-round playoff appearances under the current format.

It's just that the NFC West has produced more than a few playoff success stories, and the 2011 San Francisco 49ers can write their own chapter by defeating the New Orleans Saints on Saturday. The matchup is going to dominate conversation on the blog this week even as the St. Louis Rams move to hire a head coach.

This season marks the fourth since realignment with every NFL division still playing in the divisional round. New England (seven), Indianapolis (6), Pittsburgh (5), Philadelphia (5) and Baltimore (5) lead the league in divisional-round appearances over the past 10 seasons, counting this one. Seattle is one of four teams with four. Every other NFC West team has made it twice, starting with the 49ers nearly a decade ago.

The football-related aspects of the Saints-49ers matchup interest me the most. I offered some early thoughts after the Saints' victory over Detroit secured New Orleans' trip to Candlestick Park.  There will be more.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com outlined quite a few keys to the game. A couple regarding the Saints' defense stood out: "The Saints must scheme up their pass rush because they're lacking in individuals who can get to the quarterback. Strong safety Roman Harper led the Saints with 7.5 sacks. As a team, the Saints recorded 33 sacks -- spread out among 15 -- that's right, 15 -- different players. ... The Saints defense does not have a lot of playmakers. This is not like the team in 2009 that won the Super Bowl. On that team, safety Darren Sharper had nine of the team's 26 interceptions. During this regular season, the Saints recorded only nine interceptions." Noted: The matchup between San Francisco's defense and New Orleans' offense should not obscure other matchups pivotal to the outcome.

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers will play the Saints differently than the Lions did. Lynch: "Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch had a horrible game. He was constantly manipulated by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Tulloch was also late covering the middle in the Lions two-deep defense. That won’t happen with 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who have more speed and hopefully, more awareness than Tulloch."

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat lists reasons the 49ers can beat the Saints. Cohn: "The Niners have a top-notch home red-zone defense (allowing TDs just 25 percent of the time), while the Saints scored touchdowns only seven times out of 22 chances on grass this season in the red zone. The Saints will move the ball, but the Niners defense should be able to hold them to field goals."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee runs through the longest plays San Francisco allowed this season. Noted: Four of the five longest ones occurred during the first four weeks of the season.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' offensive line has improved dramatically.

Also from Inman: 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin on facing his former team, the Saints.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates the Rams' coaching search, noting that Jeff Fisher is expected to make a decision by Tuesday or Wednesday. Thomas: "The only possible hangup, according to two sources, is the potential of a possible move by the franchise to Los Angeles. The move from Houston to Tennessee was grueling for Fisher during his 17 seasons with that franchise. It's something Fisher doesn't want to go through again. Even with those concerns, it's not known if that's a deal breaker with St. Louis." Noted: On the other hand, Fisher went to USC and was said to have some interest in the San Diego job had it come open under the right circumstances. The possibility of a move years from now wouldn't seem to be a deal breaker, in my view.

ESPN's Adam Schefter says former Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is already working for the Patriots as an offensive assistant, and his role will change to offensive coordinator next season.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks need to re-sign several key players before free agency. Boling: "Seahawks fans might trigger a seismic event from outrage if running back Marshawn Lynch takes his beastly style elsewhere. And Red Bryant has likewise become an exemplar of spirited toughness for the Seahawks on defense. These two are at the top of the list of 18 unrestricted free agents with whom the Seahawks may exclusively negotiate."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune hands out grades for the 2011 Seahawks, including a "C" for special teams. Williams: "Leon Washington was solid, but not as explosive as last season. Punter Jon Ryan had another good season, and kicker Steven Hauschka made people forget about Olindo Mare. The usually solid coverage units gave up three return touchdowns and were one of the most penalized groups in the NFL this season."

Will Brinson of CBSSports.com quotes CBS analyst Charley Casserly as saying the the Arizona Cardinals could provide a landing spot for Peyton Manning if the Colts part with the quarterback. Casserly: "Jim Irsay in interviewing general manager candidates has told them he will make the decision whether Peyton Manning is back. He will not put that on the new general manager. Right now there have been absolutely no discussions according to the Manning camp between Manning and Irsay about extending that deadline. In fact, it would make no sense to me for Manning to agree to that. Why give up the opportunity to talk to other teams? One team to watch? The Arizona Cardinals. They can get out of the Kevin Kolb contract and also Ken Whisenhunt's been down this road before. A veteran quarterback coming in at the end of his career? Kurt Warner." Noted: The Cardinals could get out of the Kolb deal by declining to pay a $7 million bonus in March. If Manning were available, however, he would have more than one team interested in him. I'll have more on this in a bit.