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Saints, 49ers clash with top NFC seeding in the balance

Brett Martel
AP Sports Writer
New Orleans Saints strong safety Vonn Bell (24) celebrates with teammates after his interception against the Atlanta Falcons Nov. 28 in Atlanta.
John Amis/AP | FR69715 AP

NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees and the Saints are ready to up the ante.

A third-straight NFC South title has been wrapped up. Next on the list is a second straight No. 1 overall playoff seed in the NFC, a goal New Orleans (10-2) can get closer to accomplishing on Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers (10-2) visit the site of their last Super Bowl appearance.

“We all know what this game means,” Brees said.

And so do the Niners, who had the inside track to the top seed until they lost last week at Baltimore.

“The more you win, the more people like to say, ‘Isn’t it easier or more relaxing now that you have a good record?’“ Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s totally opposite. The more you win in this league, the harder it gets.“

Especially this week.

The Saints have won three straight and nine of 10 as they meet a 49ers team that has dropped two of four after an 8-0 start.

For relatively inexperienced QBs like the Niners’ Jimmy Garoppolo, such games are as much about an opportunity to grow professionally as to improve prospects for a first-round playoff bye.

“With a young team and everything, and myself included, these big games, these big moments … it’ll only help us going forward,“ Garoppolo said. “It’s just about stepping up in the right situation, the right crucial times and just making the plays that are there for you.“

Saints coach Sean Payton sees San Francisco as “a good test,“ given the Niners’ top-ranked defense, led by a line full of first-round draft picks. And while Garoppolo is an adept passer with proven receivers at his disposal, he’s also had the luxury of leaning on a deep and effective running game to slow down opposing pass rushes.

“These guys, I’m telling you, just when you watch this team play, defensively and offensively and in the kicking game, they’re as balanced a team“ as there is, Payton said.

RUN, RAHEEM, RUN

Raheem Mostert began the year low on the depth chart for San Francisco’s running backs but he has been perhaps the Niners’ most effective runner. He had a breakthrough game last week with 143 yards and a TD in a loss to the Ravens, the biggest rushing day for a Niners back in three seasons under Shanahan. Mostert is second on the team this season with 538 yards rushing — 3 fewer than Matt Breida — and his 5.9 yards per carry are second in the NFL to Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“When Raheem came in, just the way he ran and some of the looks he got. He got some good looks, but then he took advantage of those looks. The way he was going, we just stuck with the hot hand,“ Shanahan said of the decision to stick with Mostert over starter Tevin Coleman.

BLANKET COVERAGE

The 49ers have been on an impressive pace when it comes to pass defense but figure to get one of their toughest tests of the season this week. San Francisco is allowing only 134.3 net yards passing per game, nearly 30 yards better than the second-ranked Patriots and on pace for the fewest in the NFL since Miami allowed 114.1 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. A defensive line that ranks second in the league with 45 sacks has played a major part, but the secondary has also been outstanding, led by cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman’s status this week is in doubt with a knee injury, but Ahkello Witherspoon is healthy again and Emmanuel Moseley fared well earlier this season when Witherspoon was hurt.

STAYING EAST

Instead of flying home after last week’s game in Baltimore, the 49ers opted to spend the week in Florida instead to avoid more cross-country flights and another time change. That strategy worked well in September when the Niners spent the week after the opener in Tampa by practicing in Ohio before a 41-17 win at Cincinnati. This is the fifth time since 2011 that the Niners have stayed on the road between games. They won the second contest three times, losing only in 2016 in snowy Chicago after practicing in Orlando.