SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – The New Orleans Saints started the season by losing three straight games, only to play themselves right back into contention behind improved play and Drew Brees’ big arm.
Brees and Co. won their first game before the bye week, then two out of the next three to climb into the NFC South race.
For the San Francisco 49ers (1-6), it is likely too late to salvage Chip Kelly’s first season as coach.
The Saints (3-4) should feel pretty confident about their chances coming to the Bay Area this weekend to face the lowly Niners after their week off.
“I just feel like we’re building something here, and different than the last few years,” Brees said, referring specifically to the previous two seasons, when the Saints started 1-3 or worse, rallied back to 4-4, but stumbled to 7-9 finishes. “I feel like we’ve got some pieces in place now that are here for the longer term and we’ve got a great opportunity.”
Last weekend, Brees and his balanced offense wore down the Seahawks’ typically stellar defense.
Flustering Brees will be tough for a defense ranked worst in the league against the run that is a far cry from the dominant unit it was. Brees has thrown for 465, 367 and 265 yards in his last three games, but those numbers were down in the 25-20 win against Seattle considering the Saints ran the ball as many times as they threw it for a change.
“Just tackle him,” said 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has 4½ sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in four games against the Saints.
The Saints haven’t played at San Francisco since losing 36-32 in the divisional playoffs after the 2011 season .
Here are some things to watch for Sunday when New Orleans play for the first time at Levi’s Stadium:
BREES’ CHASE: Brees has a pair of four-touchdown performances this season and has thrown for 18 TDs total to give him 446 in his career. Now, he needs only four more – might he do it against the Niners D? – to become the third player to pass for 450 touchdowns. Peyton Manning with 539 and Hall of Famer Brett Favre at 508 are the others.
It might depend on the running game. Tim Hightower gained 102 yards on the ground against the Seahawks to become the Saints’ first 100-yard rusher of the year after taking over for the benched Mark Ingram.
“He did everything we asked him to do in that game. It was interesting,” Brees said. “You’re executing the offense, you don’t really know until you look at the stat sheet at the end of the game to see how many times we ran the ball, threw the ball, and we were dead even, 50-50. We had 35 runs, 35 passes. It was very efficient.”
HEY, ROOKIE!: Saints coach Sean Payton made a surprise move just days before the regular-season opener when he cut veteran kicker Kai Forbath and signed Wil Lutz, a rookie out of Georgia State who had spent training camp with Baltimore. During New Orleans’ victory over Seattle, Lutz made Payton look good. He hit four field goals and was chosen NFC special teams player of the week for the second time this season.
KAEPERNICK’S THIRD START: Colin Kaepernick has made his mark off the field . On it, he has gone two straight games with a completion percentage below 50 percent. He went 16 of 34 and threw for only 143 yards in a loss to Tampa Bay.
Yet he’s had memorable games against New Orleans.
“One of the things that we’ve always said playing the Saints is you’re going to have to put up points,” Kaepernick said. “We’re going to have to be able to match up.”
IMPROVED D: After allowing more than 400 yards in each of its first three games, New Orleans’ much-maligned defense has demonstrated moderate improvement the past month under coordinator and former Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen. The Saints have allowed fewer than 400 yards in three of their past four games, moving up in the NFL rankings from 31st to 28th. And they’ve done so without top cornerback Delvin Breaux and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, both of whom appeared close to returning from broken legs this week.
STAYING PUT: Veteran left tackle Joe Staley and wideout Torrey Smith each were considered trade options for San Francisco, but they stayed put as the deadline passed Tuesday.
While those two will be on the field, 49ers running back Carlos Hyde’s status was still uncertain. He returned to practice in a limited capacity during the week after missing the Oct. 23 loss to Tampa Bay because of a shoulder injury.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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