By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS — Malcolm Jenkins spent a good chunk of his offseason in front of a television, reviewing New Orleans’ crushing loss to San Francisco in last season’s playoffs.
The 36-32 thriller was a defeat he would never get over or be able to forget, so he figured he might as well learn from it.
“I probably watched that game about four or five times, the entire game,” the Saints safety said this week. “I just marked down the type of things I needed to improve on or us as a defense needed to improve on so that we don’t make those mistakes again in the same situation.”
Less than a year later, a high-stakes rematch is set when the NFC West-leading 49ers (7-2-1) visit the resurgent Saints (5-5), who are trying to prolong a captivating rally back into playoff contention after an 0-4 start.
“Everybody probably circled this game whenever they announced the schedule,” Jenkins said. “It’s going to be a big game for us. It’s going to be a lot of emotion, but right now all we can do is make sure that we prepare mentally and not get too caught up in the hype.”
There is plenty of intrigue surrounding today’s game, including a potential quarterback quandary for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh following the impressive first career start of Colin Kaepernick in the Niners’ 32-7 demolition of the Chicago Bears last Monday night.
With established starter Alex Smith still recovering from a concussion, Kaepernick demonstrated he could make all the throws needed to pick apart a respected Bears defense. Kaepernick is also an exceptional scrambler, as anyone who watched his highlight-filled college career at Nevada knows.
So even if Smith is deemed ready to return in the Big Easy, Kaepernick could get the start.
“In both guys we have quarterbacks that we’re confident in, believe in, have won for us,” Harbaugh said. “We have confidence in our guys. It’s great for us that we’re in that position.”
Smith had little doubt there would be an extra edge to this season’s meeting with the Saints.
“They’re on a roll. They get a little chance at revenge,” Smith said. “Everybody that watched that (playoff) game remembers it. And certainly us that took part in it — I know that. It was a physical game. It was back and forth, some talking going on out there on the field. I’m sure it’s in the back of their heads. I’m sure they remember it and the chance to get us on their turf.”
This time, there is more at stake for the Saints than 49ers, who hold a 1 1/2-game lead in their division.
New Orleans is virtually out of the divisional race because of Atlanta’s 9-1 record, but by winning five of six games, the Saints have narrowly kept alive the dream of playing a Super Bowl in the Superdome in February. New Orleans entered this weekend a game behind three teams — Tampa Bay, Seattle and Minnesota — which are tied for the final NFC wild-card playoff spot.
With six games remaining, it’s plausible New Orleans will overcome the bounty scandal and a poor start to the regular season and wind up in its fourth straight postseason.
But doing so could become less realistic if the Saints cannot extend their current winning streak to four with a victory over San Francisco.
In some aspects, the game has the makings of a mismatch in the Niners’ favor, starting with San Francisco’s No. 1 running game (165.3 yards per game) against New Orleans’ league-worst run defense (157.8 yards allowed per game).
Lately, however, the Saints have been better on defense, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he did not expect the game to be defined by such statistics.
“I sure hope not,” Vilma said, noting if the Saints play well offensively and get a lead, that will help reduce the number of runs the Niners attempt. “It just depends how the game plays out. … Of course, for us, we don’t see ourselves bending over and giving them 165 (yards) a game like they’ve been getting, and that’ll be a challenge.”
The game also pits the 49ers’ fearsome pass rush, led by linebacker Aldon Smith (15 sacks), against a Saints offensive line that is a little beaten up. Starting right tackle Zach Strief is trying to come back from a left groin injury. His replacement, Charles Brown, was hurt last week, meaning rookie Bryce Harris could make his first start against the Niners’ ferocious defensive front.
“You just can’t have any wasted movements or any wasted time,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “You always just have to be conscious that you can’t just be sitting back there holding that ball. You have to know where your outlets are.”
Those outlets could include Darren Sproles, who has missed three games with a broken left hand but practiced fully this week.
And it’s not like New Orleans couldn’t move the ball in last year’s matchup, surpassing 30 points despite an unusually high five turnovers.
Harbaugh looks at the way the Saints have been playing lately and sees similarities to that potent team the Niners’ narrowly survived against last January, thanks to tight end Vernon Davis’ touchdown catch in traffic in the final seconds.
“That’s scary right now, watching how they’re operating,” Harbaugh said of the Saints. “They’re playing real good football. That’s a big concern and we have a lot of respect for them as a football team, having competed against them and watching a lot of their success on tape, the fundamentals, technique, coaching, fine play and the talent that they have.”