San Francisco (5-6) at New Orleans (7-4)

Partly Cloudy Currently: New Orleans, LA
Temp: 73° F
  • Game info: 1:00 pm EST Sun Dec 3, 2006
  • TV: FOX
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Alex Smith has thrown for 1,972 yards in his first full season as the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback. Drew Brees has almost that many in his last five games for the New Orleans Saints.

Brees and the first-place Saints (7-4) look to win their first home game in over a month when they face Smith and the 49ers (5-6) on Sunday.

The Saints are 2-3 since their bye, but Brees has set an NFL record for passing yards in a five-game span with 1,954. He had 349 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-13 win at Atlanta last Sunday.

“I’m sure they could make up some kind of record for every situation,” Brees said. “If we’re winning games, that’s great. … I kind of go by the saying, ‘You’re only as good as your next performance.”’

Brees has passed for a league-leading 3,463 yards, 499 better than Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning.

With five games remaining, Brees has helped lead New Orleans to the second-best record in the NFC. The Saints trail only Chicago and are tied with Seattle and Dallas, where New Orleans plays in prime time on Dec. 10.

New Orleans, though, has lost two straight at the Superdome after winning its first four there.

“This my 10th year in the league and I’ve never seen a team win seven games and get in the playoffs, so we’ve got a lot of football left,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We’ve got five weeks still to play. … We’re not sitting at 10 wins or 11 wins. … That’s the approach you have to take.”

If not for a rash of turnovers in their last three losses to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, New Orleans’ record could be even better. While the Saints remain fourth from worst in the NFL in turnover margin at minus-9, they did not give away the ball once against the Falcons.

In his first season in New Orleans, Brees has helped turn around a team that went 3-13 a season ago. Both of his touchdowns against Atlanta, including a 48-yard pass he put up for grabs as time expired in the first half, offering further proof of the extent of his recovery from complicated offseason throwing shoulder surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff.

In the past month, Brees has thrown accurately downfield on touchdown passes of 76, 72, 52, 49 and 45 yards.

“He’s throwing the ball down the field better than he has all season,” Payton said.

Brees said he has been gaining strength all season and is approaching the arm strength he had before the injury.

“I definitely think my arm’s gotten stronger as we’ve gone along here. … Week to week, month to month, it’s gotten so much better,” Brees said.

Smith’s numbers are much more modest, but he has certainly exceeded expectations after throwing for one touchdown and 11 interceptions in nine games as a rookie. Smith has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2006.

His steady play is a big reason San Francisco has improved after a 4-12 season. The 49ers had won three straight before a 20-17 loss at St. Louis last Sunday.

“I don’t believe there was a let down in the game, I just believe we didn’t perform as well as we had done the three prior weeks,” San Francisco coach Mike Nolan said. “We will look at the film as a team and then individually, and correct the mistakes as we do each and every week.”

Despite the loss, the Niners’ progress in the last month still is obvious. After giving up 41 points in the first half of a loss in Chicago four weeks earlier, San Francisco nearly knocked off the Rams.

And instead of being surprised at their ability to compete with the rest of the league, the 49ers are expecting to win for the first time in perhaps three seasons.

“It’s a lot different feeling with that loss,” Smith said. “We walked off that field thinking we should have won the game, and that’s a real different feeling than we’ve had around here.”

The 49ers had 171 yards rushing against the Rams, including 134 on 21 carries by Frank Gore. The NFL’s second-leading rusher with 1,177 yards, Gore said he’s fine after leaving last week’s game with a few bruises on his right leg.

Gore needs one more 100-yard rushing game to set a team record with seven in a season.

San Francisco’s two first-round picks in April’s draft made contributions against St. Louis.

Tight end Vernon Davis, the sixth overall selection, made his first start of the season since suffering a cracked fibula against Philadelphia in Week 3. He had his first reception since the season opener when he caught an 11-yard pass in the second quarter.

Linebacker Manny Lawson, the 22nd overall pick, intercepted his first career pass in the first quarter to stop the Rams’ first drive.

New Orleans has won two straight and five of the last seven meetings with San Francisco, including a 30-27 victory at the Superdome on Sept. 19, 2004, in the last matchup between the teams.

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Week 4