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Competition Rises

Posted Jan 9, 2012

It wasn’t the most competitive setting the last time the San Francisco 49ers played the New Orleans Saints.  This time, however, it will be the ultimate proving ground.

Back on Aug. 12, the 49ers lost to the Saints in the team’s preseason opener under Jim Harbaugh. With less than one month together, San Francisco and its new coach lost on the road as New Orleans blitzed early and often in a 24-3 victory.

But this time around, the 49ers feel better prepared for the Saints pressure defense and will look to prove it when they host New Orleans at Candlestick Park on Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. PT kick-off in the NFL’s Divisional Playoff round.

Both teams have met 71 times in the regular season, but never in the postseason.

That’ll change when the competition level gets raised significantly compared to the previous meeting in New Orleans.

“One shot and you go home, so I’m going to have to play with a lot of energy,” tight end Vernon Davis said on Monday as the 49ers began official practice preparation for the Saints. “I’m going to have to play with all I got. I have to play as hard as I can and take advantage of the opportunity.”

The 49ers utilized a first-round bye to sit back and watch four NFC teams compete to enter the Divisional round. With a New Orleans win on Saturday night over the Detroit Lions, the 49ers knew immediately they’d be seeing the same blitzing Saints defense.

Jonathan Goodwin knows all too well how New Orleans likes to attack opposing defenses, even their own.

The 49ers starting center played his last five seasons with the Saints where he was a member of the 2009 Pro Bowl as well as New Orleans’ Super Bowl XLIV Championship-winning team.

After awhile, Goodwin became used to the constant pressure being dialed up by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

“First practice of training camp, Gregg blitzes,” Goodwin shared. “Over the past few years of being around him, that’s what he likes to do. Gregg bringing pressure is not a surprise to me.”

It wasn’t a surprise to Harbaugh either.

“You’ve seen, and you saw even more as the season went on as you watch each and every game.  It’s a high volume, no question about it,” the 49ers coach said before noting that a safety (Roman Harper) leads New Orleans in sacks (7.5). “It’s a great challenge for not just our offensive line, but our quarterback, our backs, our receivers. They’re a team that will play coverage, too.”

After studying up on the Saints, Harbaugh has the 49ers treating the schedule like a regular game week, only with everything bumped up a day earlier with the team playing on Saturday.

“We’re on our season routine,” he said.

Goodwin’s treating things the same, only this time, he has to sort through ticket requests from his former teammates in New Orleans.

“I got my first call about tickets a little while ago, they wanted better seats,” Goodwin shared. “We’ll see how that goes… I already have a high number of requests."

Goodwin will soon be busy learning the offense’s plan of attack for the Saints.

Harbaugh had a good chunk of the playoff gameplan installed already by Monday. Last week, the 49ers coach had his first team offense and defense compete at practice in what he described to be, “good competition.” The practice periods also allowed the coaching staff to “troubleshoot” any issues that arose on either side of the ball.

In a radio appearance last week, Harbaugh admitted to gearing his plans towards the Saints, especially after already facing the New York Giants already this season.

The guessing work paid off as Harbaugh will indeed face New Orleans for a second time, this time, in a game that will end the season for one of the two sides competing.

“I look at them as a great team and they have the ability to win in a number of ways,” Harbaugh said Monday of New Orleans.

Beyond being wiser about their opponent, the 49ers feel fresh.

“The bye week was great,” Goodwin explained. “You get to rest up; you didn’t have to play in a game. I think we’ve played like 10-straight games, so I think it was key to get a week off and hopefully it’ll energize us and have us playing well down the stretch.”

With so much on the line, knowing this could be their last week together, the 49ers are ready for an all-out competition against the Saints.

“Everybody in this league is good, but at the same time, you’re competing,” Davis added. “You compete to win and I think we have a lot of guys on this team that enjoy competing, competing to win.”

So does San Francisco’s head coach.

“He’s very energetic, always challenging us, pushing us to the limit. We enjoy it,” Davis said of Harbaugh, who he expects to be in full-on competition mode come Saturday. “We enjoy having him around. He’s just a blessing. It’s a blessing to have him on board. He’s one of those coaches that comes around every once and awhile.”

Since 1980, the 49ers have a 17-4 home postseason record (.810), including a 10-2 (.833) record at home in the Divisional Playoffs. Harbaugh will look to go 1-0 in his playoff coaching debut.

“It feels pretty amazing, first playoff game I’ve ever been in, I look forward to it,” Davis concluded. “We definitely know what’s at stake. We know we all have to go; we all have to contribute and bring our A-game.”

If that happens, the 49ers would improve their 5-1 record (.833) when having a first-round bye since 1990.

But first, the 49ers must rise to the occasion against a formidable Saints defense.

“One thing about this league is you have to learn from your mistakes,” Goodwin noted. “Fortunately for us, at that time, it was a preseason game. It didn’t count against us.”

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