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San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees versus Patrick Willis Reminiscent of Manning's Colts Against Lewis' Ravens in 2006

Last week, during the wildcard round, I looked at similar teams to this year’s playoff teams. For each of this week’s four match ups, I’m going to find the playoff match ups in the Divisional and Championship Rounds that most resemble this year’s games, by looking at the traits of both the home and road team. We’ll start today with what I think is the most compelling matchup of this weekend, and the game that will start off the action on Saturday: San Francisco against New Orleans.

This is a game of opposites in so many ways. The Saints are the high-powered dome team, with a big passing offense, a very good running game, but a suspect rush defense. The 49ers have one of the best run defenses of the last decade, and a very good defense overall, but an average passing offense. The game is outdoors on grass, which could slow New Orleans down. So what match ups have most resembled this one?

Well, let’s start with the obvious caveat that nothing is exactly alike, and these will just provide us with match ups that at least had some shared qualities, based on the home team, road team or both. Here’s how I calculated it (you can skip to the list if you don’t care about the details).

  1. Start with 100 points for each team;
  2. Subtract 10 points for every yard difference in net yards per pass attempt on offense and defense, and rush yards per carry on offense and defense between playoff team and all past playoff teams to 1990;
  3. Subtract 5 points for every 1 win difference, and every 1 point of simple rating system difference, between playoff team and all past playoff teams to 1990;
  4. Multiply each team’s similarity ranking in the matchup against each other, to get the matchup rating (I multiply, rather than add, so that match ups with one very similar team and one completely dissimilar team do not show up).

Home teams are only compared against home teams, and road teams against other road teams. So, in this case, San Francisco is only compared to those teams that also hosted a Divisional or Championship Round Game. In the brackets, I list the similarity score for each team, and the overall score of the matchup. Clear as mud? Well, let’s get to the results.

  1. Denver (14) at Kansas City (10), 1997 AFC Divisional Round [NO 67, SF 90, Overall: 6022]
  2. San Francisco (18) at Atlanta (20), 1998 NFC Divisional Round [NO 75, SF 59, Overall: 4368]
  3. New England (41) at Pittsburgh (27), 2004 AFC Championship Game [NO 64, SF 67, Overall: 4281]
  4. Indianapolis (15) at Baltimore (6), 2006 AFC Divisional Round [NO 53, SF 80, Overall: 4232]
  5. New York Jets (10) at Denver (23), 1998 AFC Championship Game [NO 61, SF 68, Overall: 4141]
  6. Denver (24) at Pittsburgh (21), 1997 AFC Championship Game [NO 67, SF 62, Overall: 4131]
  7. Green Bay (48) at Atlanta (21), 2010 NFC Divisional Round [NO 62, SF 66, Overall: 4120]
  8. San Francisco (38) at Dallas (21), 1993 NFC Championship Game [NO 58, SF 65, Overall: 3746]
  9. Los Angeles Raiders (3) at Buffalo (51), 1990 AFC Championship Game [NO 49, SF 75, Overall: 3653]
  10. Dallas (3) at Minnesota (34), 2009 NFC Divisional Round [NO 57, SF 63, Overall: 3614]

Earlier this year, I talked about how this San Francisco team reminded me of the Kansas City teams of the mid-90’s. The most similar matchup, by far, is the Denver-Kansas City slugfest, involving the 13-3 Chiefs and the 12-4 Broncos back in January of 1998. It shows up as so similar because of just how close that Kansas City team ended up to San Francisco this year.

Sometimes, the powerful offense got slowed down. In the case of the Denver-Kansas City matchup and the Indianapolis-Baltimore matchup (the other team that shows up as most similar to this year’s 49ers), even though the offenses struggled, the offensive team won.

Overall, the home team went 5-5. However, the top four match ups saw the road team win three times. The match ups toward the top feel similar to me, and if I were to have guessed before looking, I would have had Peyton Manning’s Colts winning at Baltimore, a case of an offensive dome team outdoors in January against a top defense, in the list. Toward the bottom, this New Orleans team isn’t all that similar to the Raiders team that lost 51-3 at Buffalo. If I weight the results, I get a 61.8% chance of a New Orleans victory, with the average score 21.4 to 20.3 in favor of the New Orleans comps.

It’s understandable that the Saints are a slight favorite. Teams with powerful passing games are decent propositions on the road, particularly against lesser offensive teams. The two other teams that are most similar to this year’s 49ers are the 2001 Bears and the 2008 Titans, neither of which show up because of the opponent not being like these Saints. Basically, teams like the 49ers, built around strong run defense, and an opportunistic offense that tends to love field goals, don’t fare well, despite what the talking heads might tell you.

San Francisco, of course, has a chance. They are at home, have the Saints on grass, and New Orleans is not the greatest defense. It’s possible that the 49ers contain the Saints offense and limit it to less than 24 and still lose, though. Kicker David Akers set a field goal record this year; if they want to win this one, they are going to have to cash in a few touchdowns in the red zone instead.

[photo via Getty]

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