NEW ORLEANS — San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is generally a man of few words when speaking about his team.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make a point.
“We’re at the halfway point. We’re not where we want to be, and we certainly have to approach these games as single-game seasons,” Harbaugh said this week, as the Niners (4-4) prepared to visit the New Orleans Saints (4-4). “Playing our best football is our goal — and winning.”
After three straight trips to the NFC title game, as well as one Super Bowl appearance two seasons ago, San Francisco certainly didn’t expect to be on the brink of sinking below .500 at midseason.
The Niners probably can’t afford to, either. Unlike the Saints, who have the luxury of sitting atop the anemic NFC South despite a lousy start, the 49ers are already three games behind NFC West Division leader Arizona (7-1).
San Francisco also trails Dallas (6-3), Seattle (5-3) and Green Bay (5-3) in the race for one of the NFC’s two wild-card spots. Another loss could be costly, which is why Saints quarterback Drew Brees said New Orleans needs to brace for the Niners’ best.
“In many cases it is not who you play, it is when you play them,” Brees said, alluding to the way his own team rallied for two straight convincing victories since their 2-4 start.
“They probably feel this week like we did a couple of weeks ago where you are in desperate need of a win. Because of that, we know the type of team that is going to come in here.”
New Orleans could lose and still be in first place if Carolina loses at Philadelphia on Monday night.
Saints coach Sean Payton knows this, of course, but he doesn’t want to hear it.
“There are two teams here that are 4-4, that are battling,” Payton said. “We’re desperate as well.”
Here are some things to know about the 49ers’ visit:
Saints running back Mark Ingram has done something in the past two games that no New Orleans player at his position had done since Deuce McAllister in 2006: rush for 100 yards in consecutive games. Part of Ingram’s increase in production stems from injuries to Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson, forcing the Saints — who average about 130 yards rushing as a team — to give their former Heisman Trophy winner the bulk of the carries. But Ingram also appears to be in top form. The running back said he’s “just being confident, being decisive, just understanding what the line’s going to do.”
Quiet ground game
San Francisco hasn’t scored a touchdown rushing since rookie Carlos Hyde’s 6-yard run in Week 3. While Frank Gore isn’t complaining about his lack of carries, he is calling on everyone to do their part. “It’s always one person here or one person there” causing plays to break down, said Gore, who has rushed for 472 yards and just one TD this season. “In the NFL, it’s just not going to work. We’ve got to be real with ourselves and go back to everybody taking care of their job and we’ll be fine. ... It’s real frustrating because have so many weapons on the offensive side of the ball.”
With Payton on the sideline, the Saints have virtually unbeatable in the Superdome for the equivalent of more than two full seasons. Payton has coached the Saints to 20 straight wins in the dome, going 9-0 (including playoffs) in 2011, 8-0 in 2013 and 3-0 so far this season.
Niners left tackle Joe Staley said it would be too simplistic to cite a decline in the running game or a rookie center as reasons for an increase of sacks taken, or turnovers committed, by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco’s third-year QB took eight sacks and lost two fumbles in a 13-10 loss to St. Louis last weekend, when rookie Marcus Martin was making his debut at center. “We have to do a better job of executing what’s called. Watching the film, the plays are there to be made,” Staley said. “Speaking of the offensive line, we have to do a better job protecting the quarterback.”
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham hasn’t let his right shoulder injury limit him for long. He did not have a catch in his first game after the injury in Week 7, but during the past two weeks, Graham has 12 catches for 142 yards and two TDs. “He is a tough guy. He wants to be there for everybody. He is the ultimate team guy,” Brees said of Graham. “His preparation throughout the week in order to get himself ready, his body ready, his mind ready to play the game is pretty tremendous.”
AP Sportswriter Janie McCauley in Santa Clara, California, contributed to this report.