Saints have advantage in playoff experience

January 12, 2012 - 5:57 PM
49ers Tolzien Brees Football

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Scott Tolzien (3) watches NFL football practice in Santa Calf., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012. Tolzien is having a ball playing Drew Brees in practice this week. Not a bad gig for the little-known practice-squad quarterback, who wasn't even drafted after a stellar career at Wisconsin. He realizes full well that his role is mighty important in San Francisco's preparation for its NFC divisional playoff game against the high-powered Saints on Saturday at Candlestick Park. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Center Jonathan Goodwin has been going around San Francisco's locker room offering bits of veteran insight here and there. Playoff knowledge, Saints knowledge.

The NFC West champion 49ers have eight players who have been to the postseason previously. The New Orleans Saints? A whopping 39 before their victory over Detroit last weekend.

"I think some of the guys who didn't get a chance to go to the playoffs in the past, they're hungry," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "They're really hungry. I don't know what it's going to be like, I just know I'm playing in the playoffs. I try not to get too excited because I want to keep myself under control."

That's where Goodwin comes in.

Among the key offseason acquisitions for San Francisco, Goodwin is one of those playoff-tested guys for the Niners (13-3). He won a Super Bowl ring with the Saints two years ago.

"Should be pretty fun," Goodwin said. "Hopefully my experiences seeing that defense a lot during training camp and sometimes during the season will be valuable."

When the 49ers head into their first postseason appearance in nine years Saturday afternoon against Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints (14-3), quarterback and 2005 No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith will be just one of many San Francisco regulars making postseason debuts and taking their most significant steps yet onto the NFL's big stage.

Of the eight 49ers who have been to the postseason before, one is little-used wide receiver Brett Swain, another is long snapper Brian Jennings and also record-setting kicker David Akers. Jennings is the only player still around from the 49ers' 2002 playoff season, when San Francisco rallied to stun the New York Giants 39-38 in their NFC wild-card game.

From star linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, to Davis, running back Frank Gore and left tackle Joe Staley, punter Andy Lee and even safety Donte Whitner, this will be a monumental first.

What a difference from the dominating Saints, with almost an entire roster of men who have played such important games before this year. The 49ers are considered an underdog again — a role first-year coach Jim Harbaugh relishes — this week despite playing at home in sold-out Candlestick Park.

San Francisco earned the NFC's No. 2 seed over the Saints, who did their share of scoreboard watching late in the season in hopes of stealing the second spot and a first-round bye.

"The bigger the games get, I think you fall back on your routine and your preparation," Smith said. "What you've always done, the things that got you here. Continue to fall back on all those little things."

Brees will be up against a stingy San Francisco defense that allowed only three rushing touchdowns and all in the final two games — and the Niners had 38 takeaways to only 10 turnovers for a plus-28 turnover differential. That matched the second-best mark in NFL history.

Now, back in the postseason, the 49ers face the daunting task of trying to slow down Brees, whose versatile offense produced a playoff-record 626 yards in Saturday night's 45-28 win over the Lions. Brees threw for 466 yards and completed 33 of 43 passes — and no doubt will provide the toughest test yet for San Francisco's deep and talented defense.

Darren Sproles ran for two touchdowns against Detroit and Pierre Thomas also rushed for a score.

The 49ers realize the challenge — and plan to stick with what got them this far. They have lost the last six meetings with New Orleans.

"I haven't been to the postseason in my life," safety Dashon Goldson said. "I won a championship in high school. But other than that, no. ... We've got a good chance."

Brees knows playoff experience won't mean much. New Orleans was set to arrive in San Francisco on Thursday evening, then hold a walk-through practice at Candlestick on Friday.

"I think that can be beneficial at times, your guys are used to playing in big games, they're used to being in playoff situations, that kind of thing," Brees said. "But to be honest with you each team is different. I would say San Francisco is a 13-win team just like we're a 13-win team and we've all played in a lot of big games this year and we've all had to win down the stretch."

The 49ers, who won their division to end an eight-year playoff drought, have been planning for New Orleans for a week now. San Francisco took a 24-3 beating in the Big Easy back in August during the teams' exhibition opener.

"My advice so far is pretty much, when it all comes down to it, it's still football," Goodwin said. "You might have a little anxiety that first series. After that, it's something that you've done for plenty of years of your life."

Akers, the oldest player on the team at 37 and in his 14th year, has the most playoff experience of the bunch after spending his last 12 NFL seasons with the Eagles.

Smith, not about to reflect on his comeback year, and the rest of the first-timers are looking to make their own memorable mark on these playoffs.

"Had a great season up to this point. Got ourselves the bye," Smith said. "Put ourselves in a good situation. It doesn't guarantee you anything beyond that, we all understand that. So much of the playoffs is the hot team and the team that's peaking and continuing to get better here at the end of the season. That's really our focus, is just to continue to get better."

Saints coach Sean Payton isn't counting on an advantage based on past postseason success — like that title two years ago.

"Our game, it's three hours long, so it's going to be 12 to 14 series each, it's going to be some plays in the kicking game," Payton said. "Last week the same question was asked before we played Detroit. We've got a number of guys who are playing without it. I don't think it hurts, but it certainly doesn't entitle you or guarantee anything."

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this story.