SANTA CLARA — Among the factors that could swing the 49ers' NFC divisional playoff game against the Saints today, it's possible that the most important is also the most down-to-earth. It's there beneath your feet when you take a walk in the park, and it's staring you in the face when you plop down to rip out dandelions in the spring.
It's grass, and it has never smelled sweeter to the 49ers.
The New Orleans Saints had a devastating offense this year, setting an NFL record with 7,474 yards from scrimmage and finishing just behind the Packers with 547 points. But a closer analysis reveals that the Saints weren't the same team on natural grass that they were on artificial surfaces.
"I didn't think that, but I think so (now), because you just look at their home and away games, especially in a dome, inside. Outside on grass it's not the same," 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said at his locker earlier this week. "I hope they continue that this week, but you never know."
The Saints weren't operating on level playing fields this year. Their yardage total was largely unaffected — they averaged 469 per game on plastic, 462.8 on grass. But Brees' passer rating dropped off significantly on grass surfaces, 95.7 compared to 118.7 on artificial fields, as did New Orleans' scoring average, 25.8 points compared to 38. Most important, the Saints were 10-1 on man-made surfaces (including 8-0 at home in the Louisiana Superdome), 3-2 on the lawn — with victories at Jacksonville, Carolina and Tennessee, and losses at Green Bay and Tampa Bay.
Not surprisingly, both coaches downplayed the significance.
"There's been some talk about maybe those (losses) were the road games or that kind of talk. But those were early ... in the season," San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh said. "This is a good road team. They were 5-3 this year. They were 6-2 the year before on the road. Before that, I think they were one of the best road teams in the league."
Niners center Jonathan Goodwin spent five years with New Orleans, including the Super Bowl championship run in 2009, and he didn't have any encouraging word about the Saints' mindset on grass.
"It wasn't even said down there," Goodwin observed. "We felt like wherever we went, every time we got in the huddle we should score. Obviously, that's what it looks like they're thinking now. I don't think that will be something in their head that they will be fearing anything."
Add Troy Aikman's voice to the chorus. The Fox NFL analyst spent his Pro Football Hall of Fame career quarterbacking the Cowboys on the artificial turf of old Texas Stadium, and he doesn't believe Brees and company will be thrown off by a little dirt between their cleats.
"I don't put any stock in those things," Aikman said. "I mean, are you faster on turf? Are you faster indoors? Do you throw the ball better indoors? Yeah, of course you do, as opposed to having to deal with the elements or having to deal with the wind, and now you're wearing cleats instead of tennis shoes indoors. Those things affect you to some degree, but to say that it's a measurable difference, I've never bought into that."
Aikman raises a good point. Getting a dome team outside might be a big deal if you're talking about the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The temperate soil of Candlestick Park isn't quite as intimidating.