Last season, the San Francisco 49ers took control of the race for the top seed in the NFC playoffs when they beat the host New Orleans Saints 48-46 in early December.
Now San Francisco is last in the NFC West, but the Saints are back in the hunt for the top seed in the NFC as they prepare to oppose the visiting 49ers on Sunday.
The Saints (6-2) have won five consecutive games, and last week they took over first place in the NFC South when they completed a season sweep of Tampa Bay by whipping the host Buccaneers 38-3.
San Francisco (4-5) is moving forward without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo or tight end George Kittle, who were two of the key contributors in the critical victory over New Orleans last year.
Garoppolo won’t return from his ankle injury until very late in the season, if at all. Kittle is in a similar situation with a foot injury.
The 49ers haven’t healed fully, but they have had extra preparation time after a 34-17 home loss to the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 5.
“We’re still in this,” San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We’re playing a real good team this week. It was nice to get a long weekend after a Thursday night game, and we’ve got to come down to New Orleans and give it everything we got to try to get a win.
“Then we’re going to get a (bye week) and we’re going to come back and get six more games in the season where we still will have a chance to get in that tournament. The guys are tired a little bit, but we’ve got to muster out one more game, and then we’re going to get a well-needed rest.”
Nick Mullens will make his fourth start this season in Garoppolo’s place. He has completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 1,143 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions.
“I thought Nick’s done a good job,” Shanahan said. “I thought he came into the Seattle game (a 37-27 loss on Nov. 1) and did an unbelievable job. We were struggling in every aspect and he came in and led us back to within (10) points. I thought he did a hell of a job there giving us a chance.
“And last week, I know we didn’t do well as a team, but we were a little outmatched there. But I thought Nick played well under the circumstances. And it was a tough game to throw him into, and I thought he held his own.”
The 49ers had hoped to see the return of Raheem Mostert, who has been on injured reserve because of a high ankle sprain sustained in Week 6, but Shanahan said the running back is not ready.
While San Francisco is still dealing with a series of injuries, the Saints are getting healthy. Last week, New Orleans got back All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas from ankle and hamstring injuries, and starting wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders returned from a two-game absence caused by a positive COVID-19 test.
“I feel like we’re hitting our stride a little bit, getting Michael Thomas back,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “I think he’s going to continue to kind of get back into form, with more reps and coming back off the injury. Emmanuel Sanders as well and obviously more time on task. That combined with the guys we already have, young guys that we have, I’m excited to see our evolution.”
Sanders, then with the 49ers, played an important role in San Francisco’s win over the Saints last season. He caught one of Garoppolo’s four touchdown passes, gained 157 receiving yards and threw a 35-yard TD pass.
“He was a pain in the butt that game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
–Field Level Media