Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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METAIRIE, La. ― Seven years into Alex Smith's career, he's finally having the kind of season a No. 1 overall pick is expected to have.

On Saturday, at 3:30 p.m., the Saints (13-3, 1-0) will do their best to shut down Smith and the 49ers (13-3, 0-0) at Candlestick Park.

And even New Orleans realizes it's facing a different animal than in previous games against San Francisco.

'You see him operating very efficiently,' Saints coach Sean Payton said.'He comes up with the big throws.I think he's improved dramatically and you see that when you watch him week to week on tape.'

In many ways, a spot for either team in the NFC championship game could come down to how Smith handles not only Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' blitzes but his first-ever playoff game.

If this season is any clue, it won't be too big for him.

Smith had the ninth-best quarterback rating (90.7) and the fewest interceptions in the NFL (5). He was middle of the pack in touchdowns (17) and completions (274 on 446 attempts).

In other words, he didn't throw games away this season; instead, he led come-from-behind victories five times, including four on the road.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh credits Smith's work ethic and intelligence to the vast improvement this season.

Meanwhile, Saints defenders know that this isn't the same quarterback they've played against in the past.

In three previous games against New Orleans, Smith is a combined 59 of 103 for 636 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions.

But in his only game against Williams' defense in New Orleans, Smith went 23 of 32 for 275 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions in the Saints' Monday night win last season.
'He has been delivering the ball on time, doing a very good job of protecting the ball,' Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. 'I think he only has five picks. That's tremendous. He's standing in the pocket well, delivering the ball well and he has done a lot of good things for (his) team. I think he has turned the corner as a quarterback and he's playing well and I admire that.'

Smith has been aided by the league's No. 8 run offense and a defense that hasn't allowed big play or points this season and has San Francisco at 13-3 despite being sacked the seventh-most times in the NFL (44).

Regardless of this being his first playoff game, he has plenty to feel relaxed about.

'Really I'm just relying on my routine,' Smith said.'There's no question the stakes are higher since this is a playoff game.I'm falling back on the routine I've had the whole year and really for a few years now and just continuing to put in time and prepare myself throughout the week and focus on that.'

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