The 49ers at the Saints, a battle for NFC supremacy.
That’s what the script might have called for, except that the Seahawks have trumped both of them so far. And nobody wants to go to Seattle in the postseason.
So San Francisco and New Orleans will do everything possible to get lined up behind Seattle should the Seahawks stumble.
The Saints are in much better shape in that regard because the Niners (6-3) have to travel to the Big Easy, one hard place to play.
“You can definitely see offensively they are machine-like and really have things going and oiled up,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Same defensively, they are doing a very good job of getting stops, getting turnovers and creating negative plays.”
After blowing out Dallas, the Saints (7-2) know the chore will be more difficult against the defending NFC champs, who have one of the league’s most physical and versatile defenses.
“As good as they’ve ever been,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “There’s an expectation level every time you play those guys. They’re extremely disciplined and very talented.”
Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins has a hard time buying the criticism San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has drawn for his recent spate of sacks and risky throws.
“Last year this guy took his team to the Super Bowl, and now basically everybody’s expecting him to be that guy and be this phenomenal player, and it doesn’t happen like that every week,” Jenkins said. “At any point in time, I know he can turn it on.”
Now in his second season, Kaepernick is coming off one of the worst games of his young career, accumulating only 91 yards passing, throwing an interception and taking six sacks in a 10-9 loss at home to Carolina. Kaepernick made his second career start in New Orleans last Nov. 25, and won.
The Saints were a different team then as they coped with the bounty scandal and coach Sean Payton’s season-long suspension.
Payton is back and New Orleans is atop the NFC South, as well as one game better than the Niners.
“Their strength is running the ball, so you want to make a team beat you left-handed,” Jenkins said. “Our No. 1 priority is stop the run, make them spread it out, play in the pocket, make reads, and throw accurate passes. ... I'm sure he's capable of doing it, but that's not what they want to do. We can't have a game where we allow them to rush the ball, keep Drew off the field and then make easy throws off play-action passes. We have to make them pick the ball up and beat us where I think the strength of our defense is.”
KANSAS CITY (9-0) AT DENVER (8-1): A game so enticing NBC got it flexed to prime time, this one matches teams with the best combined winning percentage this late in the season since the merger.
Denver, with Jack Del Rio as interim coach while John Fox recovers from heart surgery, is on a record scoring pace, averaging 41.2 points a game.
But Peyton Manning, who has 3,249 yards passing, the most through nine games, and 33 touchdown passes, is plagued by a high ankle sprain.
And the Chiefs are as stingy as they come on defense, the first team to allow 17 points or fewer in each of their first nine games since the 1977 Falcons. They already have 36 sacks and 23 takeaways.
“We always have confidence in our defensive backfield, no matter who we play,” cornerback Brandon Flowers said. “We feel we match up pretty good with them.”
SAN DIEGO (4-5) AT MIAMI (4-5): The mess in Miami keeps building, and it has really plagued the offense. The Dolphins set a franchise low with 2 yards rushing in their loss at Tampa Bay. They’ve netted 22 yards or less three times this year; the line struggled even when guard Richie Incognito and tackle Jonathan Martin were in the lineup before the alleged bullying turmoil erupted.
The Chargers rank last in the NFL with six takeaways and are giving up 6.4 yards per play, worst in the league. But the Chargers lead the NFL in first downs per game, and in third-down efficiency at 47 percent.
ARIZONA (5-4) AT JACKSONVILLE (1-8): Coming off their first victory of the season, the Jaguars have no reason to get cocky. They haven’t scored a TD at home in 2013, and have the league’s worst overall offense.
The Cardinals have the bad luck of being in the same division with powerful Seattle and San Francisco, but are holding their own.
They’ve never won two games in Florida in the same season, and their only road victory so far has been at Tampa.
WR Larry Fitzgerald needs 94 yards receiving to reach 11,000 yards, which would make him the youngest player (30 years, 78 days today) to reach that milestone.
MINNESOTA (2-7) AT SEATTLE (9-1): The have an intimidating defense. They rank third overall and second against the pass.
Winning at Seattle has been impossible recently and the Seahawks go for their 13th straight home win, which would be a franchise record.
Minnesota’s best chance for an upset is turning Adrian Peterson loose.
Last season, Peterson rushed for 182 yards on just 17 carries against the Seahawks including runs of 74, 28 and 24 yards.
WASHINGTON (3-6) AT PHILADELPHIA (5-5): Now is the time for the Redskins to make their run to the playoffs. At least, that’s what they did last year, beating the Eagles as the first of seven consecutive wins. Washington’s running game leads the league with 5.1 yards per rush.
Philly is just behind that and LeSean McCoy leads the NFL with 932 yards on the ground. Even better, Nick Foles has thrown 16 TD passes and no interceptions.
Still, its last win at home was 11 games ago.
OAKLAND (3-6) AT HOUSTON (2-7): Texans coach Gary Kubiak will be back on the sideline after missing one game with a mini-stroke. It’s an uplifting story for a team in the midst of a horrendous season. Considered a Super Bowl contender, Houston has dropped seven in a row.
The Raiders have a solid running attack, but their air game is a mess as inexperienced QB Terrelle Pryor learns the pro game.
NEW YORK JETS (5-4) AT BUFFALO (3-7): The Jets are the second team to alternate wins and losses through nine games. Like Buffalo, they are using a rookie QB, Geno Smith, but their pride and joy is an aggressive defense. Coach Rex Ryan campaigned to add safety Ed Reed when the long-time star was cut by Houston and got his wish.
The Bills have dropped nine of their last 11 meetings with New York and have lost five of their last six overall this season.
GREEN BAY (5-4) AT NEW YORK GIANTS (3-6): This group of New Yorkers was beaten in its first six games, then won three straight. Another victory could put the Giants in the midst of the NFC East race, believe it or not.
Getting it will be whole lot easier against a Packers team that lost Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone. Green Bay has fallen twice without its star quarterback, and might need to rely even more on a blossoming running game with third-stringer Scott Tolzien behind center.
ATLANTA (2-7) AT TAMPA BAY (1-8): Atlanta has lost three straight since beating the Bucs on Oct. 20, while Tampa Bay became the last team to win this season with a 22-19 victory over Miami on Monday night. Atlanta has been outscored 94-33 during the losing streak.
NEW ENGLAND (7-2) AT CAROLINA (6-3): A surprisingly juicy Monday night matchup thanks to the Panthers’ surge. They have won five in a row, including an impressive 10-9 victory at San Francisco last week. They lead the league in time of possession, a key against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
New England comes off a bye and has not been dominant most of the time despite its gaudy record.