Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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SAN FRANCISCO ― Carl Nicks didn't so much give away New Orleans' game plan against San Francisco as he did re-iterate what's necessary for the Saints to win and earn a spot in their third NFC championship game in six seasons.

No, sitting at his locker in New Orleans' Metairie, La., training facility, Nicks said only that if the Saints can't run, it could be a long day for the offense.

Today at 3:30 a spot in the NFC finals will likely come down to one thing can New Orleans' offense continue its torrid pace against the 49ers, which boats one of the NFL's best defenses.

'We have to run the ball or else they're going to sit back in coverage and they're not going to respect the run,' Nicks said. 'They'll drop however many people and no one is going to be open. We're going to have to run the ball.'

The Saints enter the game with a run game that ended the regular season sixth in the league. San Francisco, meanwhile, doesn't really care it finished the year as the best unit against the run.

In fact, no team scored a rushing touchdown against the 49ers until the penultimate weekend of the season and in all, they allowed only three total rushing touchdowns.

In other words, it could be up to New Orleans' passing game to make things happen.

The Saints set an NFL record for passing yards in a season and, with quarterback Drew Brees leading the way, have put up more than 42 points in four straight games.

But the Saints aren't so cocky to think the passing game is a sure thing.


Because San Francisco led the NFL with 38 takeaways, including 23 interceptions, including six each by rejuvenated cornerback Carlos Rogers and fifth-year safety Dashon Goldson.

'They're game is to make you do what they want you to do,' Saints receiver Robert Meachem said. 'If you can do what you do, it'll make it tough on them. But as long as they make you stay underneath and do the things they do by letting you catch the ball and coming up and giving you good shots, that's going to take a toll on you throughout the game.'

Brees went five straight games in the second half of the season without throwing an interception, but had three in the final two games of the regular season.

If the Saints are going to win, they're going to have to hold onto the ball.

Still, if the Saints can't run the ball, they could be in trouble.

Rookie linebacker Aldon Smith turns into a terror off the edge when he knows passes are coming. He was tied for fifth in the NFL with 14 sacks in his first year in the NFL.

'When they have been able to get people into a one-dimensional game, you really see the fits that he causes tackles,' Saints coach Sean Payton said.'He has speed, he has size, he has real good length and has really been a guy that has helped them in their pass rush and a guy we have to account for.'

Payton believes the 49ers success has been buoyed by an ability to get teams into unobtainable third down situations.

Which is where the Saints excel, leading the league with an astronomical 56.7 percent conversion rate, not that New Orleans wants to see too many third downs.

'Their front seven causes a lot of problems too, because the way they rush the passer, a lot of quarterbacks you see, the pockets collapse, quarterbacks have to throw it before they want to or they have a guy in their face, therefore it affects the accuracy of the ball and those guys make a play on it,' Brees said.

But the Saints won't get out of character and in the end, it'll be up to the 49ers defense to come up with stops.

'We're still going to turn it loose and do what we do, but you definitely realize how tough a game it is,' Brees said.

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