By Jack Moore
Saturday’s NFC Divisonal Round matchup between the 49ers and Saints has received plenty of buildup as an even matchup – the classic pitting of the irresistible force against the immovable object. But not much mind has been paid the the matchup of the two quarterbacks, Drew Brees of New Orleans and Alex Smith of San Francisco. Brees has generated MVP discussion in recent weeks, whereas Alex Smith evokes more memories of Trent Dilfer than any other Super Bowl quarterback.
As such, it has typically been assumed that Brees will far outplay Smith and any 49ers victory will have to come from advantages the 49ers hold on the running game, both offensively and defensively. This would likely be the case on a neutral field and most certainly on the turf in New Orleans, where the Saints deftly polished off one of the league’s top defenses in Detroit in the Wild Card round behind Brees, rattling off 45 points. But both offenses, and specifically both quarterbacks, see such wild differences at home and on the road that the gap almost completely closes.
New Orleans finished one of the most dominant home seasons in recent memory with last week’s 45-28 victory against the Detroit Lions in an NFC Wild Card game. Drew Brees and the Saints won all nine of their contests at the Superdome and set a modern regular season record (since 1940) for home scoring at 41.1 points per game. On the road, the Saints were human, scoring a “mere” 27.3 points per game.
Painful losses at St. Louis and Tampa Bay, teams that combined for all of six victories, send the Saints to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, one of the league’s toughest venues to navigate in 2011 even when the power is functioning. The 49ers defense was incredibly stout and the offense much more known for setting up David Akers field goals than Alex Smith touchdowns. Still, the 49ers scored 27.6 points per game at home this season, the sixth highest total in the NFL and superior to the mark the Saints put up on the road.
Being better at home isn’t special. Home field advantage is tangible in the NFL – the home team won 56.6 percent of games this season. It just usually doesn’t manifest itself quite so much as it did for these two teams, and specifically these two quarterbacks.
The typical quarterback doesn’t see a big difference in his performance by venue. Completion percentage moved from 60.3 percent at home to 60.0 percent on the road, passer rating fell from 86.1 to 82.9, and yards per attempt fell from 7.25 to 7.15. The key difference for the average NFL quarterback was in turnovers, as interceptions rose by a full 16 percent on the road.
For Brees and the Saints, however, it was more than just the two extra interceptions he threw outside of the Superdome. Despite over 50 more passing attempts on the road (about a heavy game’s worth for Brees), he threw 12 fewer touchdowns and compiled just 228 more yards than at home. As a result, Brees saw has passer rating drop from 122.4 to 100.7 on the road and his yards per attempt fall from 8.75 to 7.99.
The effect for Smith was uncannily similar. Despite 27 fewer attempts at home (again, about a game’s worth given the contrasting styles of the two squads), Smith threw for 96 more yards and seven more touchdowns. Even with one extra interception at home, Smith’s rating shot up from 82.7 on the road to 99.8 – less than a point behind Brees’s road mark.
This isn’t something new for either quarterback. Smith has a 13-point higher passer rating at home in his career. Brees has a seven-point higher rating at home in his career, and in the last four years that split has been over 20 points three times.
Drew Brees will still be the more talented quarterback when the Saints and 49ers take the field Saturday. Brees deserves his Pro Bowl spot while Smith remains stuck with the title of Game Manager, and even that an improvement on the performances from his earlier career. But Smith’s home field advantage – brought upon the Saints by unfathomable road failures at St. Louis and Tampa – could close that gap enough to give the 49ers an opportunity to advance to the NFC Championship Game on the back of their running game and superior defense.