Most sportswriters are picking the Saints to beat the 49ers today, and the Saints are indeed the betting favorite.

Lots of people are in for a big surprise.

Let's first make the case for the Saints. New Orleans has a rapid, productive offense run by Drew Brees, an all-time great quarterback, a pleasure to watch. In the past, the Saints running game wasn't so hot, but they have improved their running and now pose a double whopper threat.

They will overwhelm the 49ers defense, turn the game into a shootout, and everyone knows the 49ers, with their proclivity for field goals over touchdowns, can't survive a shootout.

That's the standard case, right? And it's a persuasive case.

But there's more to the story.

The great Saints offense is not so great on grass. This is known. The Saints offense was created to excel on the speed of artificial turf in the Superdome. Put that offense on the soggy, heavy Candlestick grass and the timing between Brees and his receivers isn't quite the same. In this game, milliseconds will matter.

Everyone says the Saints offense is special — and it is. But so is the Niners defense. Sure, it's sexier to talk about offense but defense matters. The 49ers have the best run defense of all time. Both Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio have said Patrick Willis is the Willie Mays of middle linebackers. Well, throw in NaVorro Bowman and the Niners have Willie Mays twins at middle linebacker.

On the defensive line, they have Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, and that's like having Bryant Young and Charles Haley next to each other. Cornerback Carlos Rogers is playing out of his mind — it's like having Deion Sanders on the team. Joe Montana and Steve Young never had a defense like this one.

So, what's the point? Don't be so sure the game will be a shootout. New Orleans will not score at will at Candlestick Park against that defense. The 49ers defense makes every team one dimensional. It takes away the run — and it will take it away from the Saints — and it forces teams to pass. Sure, Brees is a great passer, but the 49ers will get to Brees and may even hurt him.

The Saints have had a glorious season — not as good as the Niners, by the way — but the Saints offense has not faced anything like this 49ers defense, a defense that does not give up many touchdowns. There are lots of unknowns for the Saints even if they don't know it yet.

Another thing. People talk about the Saints defense, how it is blitz-happy and how it will crush Alex Smith as it did in that preseason game. Really?

The Saints tied for 19th in sacks this season — a below-average position. They are not good at getting to the quarterback or pressuring the quarterback. Smith will have more time to throw than you think. And get this, New Orleans was the No. 30 pass defense in the league, giving up nearly 260 yards per game. Let's see how well the Saints contain Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.

Now let's get to the boxing part of this football game. Boxing always provides the best analogies for sports and life. The Saints are the fast, clever, handsome boxer who comes out quickly and just dazzles the opponent. This fighter gets off to an early lead and wins easily.

Except there are some fighters who are not impressed by the dazzle. This kind of fighter hangs in there. This fighter won't go away. He takes some hard shots but he stays in the clever boxer's face, puts on the pressure, keeps him on the ropes, refuses to let him dance. All this begins to worry the dazzler and eventually the dazzler cracks.

The Niners are the fighter who refuses to go away — think Rocky Marciano. The Niners are created in Jim Harbaugh's image — he is tough, relentless, unimpressed by dazzlers. He can be rude in life and his team is rude on the field. It will not permit the Saints to be gorgeous on offense or to feel comfortable or safe. The 49ers defense will not allow the Saints to be the Saints.

This game is a big step up for both teams. It is a fascinating matchup because the teams are opposites. The Niners win 24-21.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.