Through 10 games, the San Francisco 49ers have looked every bit like one of the NFC’s elite teams.
Through 10 games, the New Orleans Saints have not. But they’re getting closer.
They can take another big step Sunday afternoon, when they host the 49ers in a compelling matchup inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints have rebounded to win five of their last six.
Their ground game has blossomed. Drew Brees is as dependable as ever. And the defense seems to have settled down a little.
In San Francisco, however, the Saints face a much tougher opponent. The 49ers, of course, are among the most physical teams in the NFL, ranking second in total defense and first in rushing offense.
This game will be the first of several tough tests for the Saints, whose next four opponents have a combined .713 winning percentage.
One other thing: Sunday’s game is a rematch of last year’s thrilling NFC divisional playoff, in which the 49ers’ Vernon Davis scored the game-winning touchdown with 9 seconds left, securing a 36-32 victory.
Surely, the Saints haven’t forgotten.
WHERE THEY STAND
The Saints are 5-5 after last week’s 38-17 win over the Raiders. They are third in the NFC South, one game behind second-place Tampa Bay and four games behind first-place Atlanta.
The Saints face the Falcons at 7:20 p.m. Thursday in Atlanta. After that, they play the Giants on the road Dec. 9, then host Tampa Bay on Dec. 16.
JOB WELL DONEFS Malcolm JenkinsWhat he’s done: Well, let’s put it this way: Since the season opener, Jenkins has been perhaps the best, most consistent player on the Saints defense. He made yet another big play at Oakland with his interception return for a touchdown.e_SFlbWhat’s next: In last year’s 36-32 playoff loss at San Francisco, Jenkins had eight tackles and a sack — but he and the Saints secondary let Alex Smith & Co. drive for that game-winning touchdown with 9 seconds left. Now, they’ll have to slow down a revamped 49ers offense.
ON THE SPOTRB Pierre ThomasWhat he’s done: Thomas? On the spot? A month ago, this would’ve been nearly unthinkable. But Thomas has only 84 rushing yards in the Saints’ past three games, while the roles of Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet have expanded.What’s next: Thomas will probably get fewer touches through the end of the regular season (especially now that Darren Sproles is nearly back from his hand injury). But it’s hard to argue with the results. After all, the Saints now have a legitimate ground game to go with Drew Brees and his explosive receivers.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
28: Last week at Oakland, for the first time this season, the Saints had more rushing attempts (28) than pass attempts (27).
147.0:The Saints averaged 147.0 rushing yards in their past three games. New Orleans averaged 75.2 yards during its first five games.
44.9:The Saints offense has converted on 44.9 percent of its third downs this season. They rank fifth in the NFL on third down.
7,405:The Saints defense is on pace to allow 7,405 yards from scrimmage this season. That would shatter the NFL record for yards allowed in a season, set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, who gave up 6,793 yards from scrimmage.
“I think there’s a feeling that we’re starting to hit our stride and find a rhythm. ... You can feel it. You can see the results.”
NFC SOUTH: JUDGMENT CALLSFalcons: UPWhat they’ve done:Give ’em credit: They don’t always look sharp, but they usually find a way to win. Last week’s squeaker with Arizona is Exhibit A.
Buccaneers: UPWhat they’ve done: Make it five wins in six games for the blazing Bucs, who now look very much like a legitimate playoff contender.
Panthers: UPWhat they’ve done: These guys have dropped seven of eight games, and their offense is averaging less than 20 points. Oof.