San Francisco 49ers (6-3) at New Orleans Saints (7-2)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
*Keys to the game: After rolling up a franchise-record 625 yards with six touchdown drives of 75-plus yards against Dallas last week, the Saints know the sledding will be much tougher against the 49ers' hard-nosed defense. New Orleans has to be encouraged by the improvement in its ground game, and coach Sean Payton needs to establish balanced play-calling because protection in front of QB Drew Brees remains very spotty. A respectable ground game would also aid the Saints' defense, which stands to be on the field quite a bit while facing the 49ers' run-based attack. New Orleans allows an average of 117.7 rushing yards per game and San Francisco will pound away with RBs Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. QB Colin Kaepernick has WR Mario Manningham back and Michael Crabtree is nearing a return as well, but TE Vernon Davis is recovering from a concussion and offensive coordinator Greg Roman doesn't need the Saints' aggressive 3-4 defense taking advantage of Kaepernick's spotty accuracy in long passing situations.
*Matchup to watch - 49ers OLB Aldon Smith vs. Saints LT Charles Brown: Smith's playing time should increase after seeing 12 snaps in his return last week. Brown has been serviceable in his first season protecting Brees' blind side, but the Saints have given up 21 sacks.
*Player spotlight - Saints PK Garrett Hartley: The six-year veteran kept his job - at least for another week - despite the team trying out five kickers this week with Hartley missing four of his past six field goal attempts.
*Fast facts: The 49ers rank second in the NFL with a 19.83 average margin of victory. ... Brees has at least two touchdown passes in an NFL-record 21 consecutive home games.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The 49ers are smarting coming off a home loss to Carolina and know this is a potentially pivotal game when it comes to playoff positioning in the NFC. San Francisco keeps it close on the strength of a strong ground game, but New Orleans' high-octane offense is a tough out on a fast track at home.
*Our pick: Saints 27-23