NEW ORLEANS SAINTS UPDATE 

lEVEN FACING A TOUGH MATCHUP, BREES, THOMAS, KAMARA HAVE APPEAL

According to Associated Press sports writer Brett Martel, Drew Brees and the Saints are ready to up the ante.

A third-straight NFC South title has been wrapped up. Next on the list is a second straight No. 1 overall playoff seed in the NFC, a goal New Orleans (10-2) can get closer to accomplishing on Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers (10-2) visit the site of their last Super Bowl appearance.

“We all know what this game means,” Brees said.

And so do the Niners, who had the inside track to the top seed until they lost last week at Baltimore.

“The more you win, the more people like to say, ‘Isn’t it easier or more relaxing now that you have a good record?’” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s totally opposite. The more you win in this league, the harder it gets.”

Especially this week.

The Saints have won three straight and nine of 10 as they meet a 49ers team that has dropped two of four after an 8-0 start.

Saints coach Sean Payton sees San Francisco as “a good test,” given the Niners’ top-ranked defense, led by a line full of first-round draft picks.

“These guys, I’m telling you, just when you watch this team play, defensively and offensively and in the kicking game, they’re as balanced a team” as there is, Payton said.

While Brees, NFL-leading receiver Michael Thomas and dynamic running back Alvin Kamara remain the Saints’ primary producers on offense, third-string QB and utility player Taysom Hill is becoming more of a menace to opponents.

In his most recent game, he deflected a punt to set up his short receiving touchdown and later ran for a pivotal 30-yard score.

“He’s a factor every week for them, whether it’s at quarterback or any of the positions except for (offensive) line is, I think, the only one I haven’t seen him play,” Shanahan said. “He’s an unbelievable player on special teams. There’s no doubt we’re going to see him, we just don’t know exactly how.”

Still, the Brees, Kamara and Thomas are the players of interest here.

As ESPN's Al Zeidenfeld notes, Brees has completed 75.7 percent of his passes over his past 17 regular-season home games, with at least three TD passes in seven of those 17 games.

Zeidenfeld went on to concede that San Francisco is a great defense -- of that there's no doubt -- but Kamara's usage makes him very enticing this week.

A league-high 30.9 percent of pass attempts against San Francisco do not travel past the line of scrimmage in the air. No other team is even at 26.5 percent. Zeidenfeld believes this gives Kamara an even higher floor this week than usual on volume alone.

Last week, Thomas was held to only 48 yards receiving.

According to Zeidenfeld, in the games following his past three 50-yard performances, Thomas ended up logging 10-plus catches in all three games. The 49ers force teams to throw short, which is where Thomas operates. As such, this shouldn't have a massively negative effect on his usage.

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