San Francisco 49ers (10-2) at New Orleans Saints (10-2)
This is one of the biggest games of the year, as it could be an NFC Championship preview and could easily end up deciding homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC when all is said and done. The 49ers have fallen to 10-2 after an 8-0 start, but both losses came by a field goal against teams that are also 10-2 and, despite those losses, the 49ers still rank 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +7.94% and 2nd since week 7 at +5.65%, only behind the red hot Ravens.
The 49ers also haven’t been healthy in recent weeks, but they’re closer to full strength than they’ve been in a while right now. Defensive end Ronald Blair and linebacker Kwon Alexander are out for the year and safety Jaquiski Tartt is also out this week, but cornerback Akhello Witherspoon (6 games), right tackle Mike McGlinchey (4 games), tight end George Kittle (2 games), left tackle Joe Staley (9 games), safety Jimmie Ward (3 games), running back Matt Breida (3 games), and defensive end Dee Ford (2 games) are all expected to play this week after missing significant time earlier in the year.
The 49ers are getting healthy at the right time ahead of this tough matchup. The Saints only rank 13th in first down rate differential on the season at +1.54%, but their offense was significantly worse with quarterback Drew Brees out of the lineup. With Brees on the field, the Saints have a 38.58% first down rate, which would be 6th in the NFL on the season. Their defense, meanwhile, ranks 12th in first down rate allowed on the season at 34.87%, so this is a very complete team.
I actually have the Saints a little bit higher in my roster rankings than the 49ers, though that’s dependent on whether or not injured left tackle Terron Armstead is able to return from a 1-game absence after being limited in practice all week. My pick will be dependant on that as well. If Armstead plays, I like the Saints’ chances to win by at least a field goal at home, but I’d like the 49ers to pull the minor upset if Armstead can’t play.
Final Update: With Armstead playing, I’m switching my pick to New Orleans. This line is now 1.5 in most places, but that doesn’t matter.
New Orleans Saints 23 San Francisco 49ers 20
Pick against the spread: New Orleans -1.5