49ers' showdown with Saints could decide NFC's No. 1 seed

Brees, Saints will overcome adversity to defeat 49ers (1:13)

Although the 49ers' defense will be stout, Victor Cruz expects Drew Brees and the Saints to overcome early struggles and win at home. (1:13)

BRADENTON, Fla. -- San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle has never played in a football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but he seems to have a pretty good handle on what it will be like when his team plays the New Orleans Saints there on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

"Well, I went to WrestleMania there two years ago," Kittle said. "So that was pretty loud when The Undertaker came out. I'm expecting it to be like that the entire game. I'm just looking forward to it. It's going to be an absolute blast.

"Championship belt. Football, WWE -- same thing, I guess."

Whether the atmosphere for WrestleMania can match the intensity of loud and rowdy Saints fans might be up for debate. But to Kittle's second point, there's no doubt: In a season full of "prove-it" games, this one might have the most impact on the NFC playoff race. Although the NFC championship belt isn't on the line, it could decide home-field advantage for the postseason.

At 10-2, the Niners are sitting in the fifth spot in the NFC by virtue of their loss to No. 2 seed Seattle -- which is also 10-2 -- on Nov. 12. San Francisco fell from the top of the NFC on Monday, after the Seahawks beat the Minnesota Vikings and the Niners lost to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

Despite that, the 49ers have control of their postseason road. The biggest difference? The margin for error is thinner. If the Niners win out, they will have the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage.

A slip-up, however, would put that possibility in serious jeopardy and could mean long and difficult road trips in January, particularly if that slip comes Sunday against the 10-2 Saints, who are hanging on to the top spot in the NFC and are the only team in the league to have clinched a playoff spot.

The magnitude of this game is not lost on the 49ers, something receiver Emmanuel Sanders made clear this week, when he stepped in front of his fellow receivers and let them know how important a win would be, emphasizing the need to lock in on every snap.

"The sense of urgency is huge," Sanders said. "It's playoff football around here ... Obviously, we want the No. 1 seed. At the end of the day, we want to make the playoffs, and we definitely have got a tough schedule. If you look around the league, we've got the Saints, we've got the Seahawks, they're right there for the No. 1 seed.

"The time is now. I was just telling guys it's time to cut out all the extracurricular activities and just home in on the season for the next hopefully two-and-a-half months and see if we can do something special around here."

Although there are four games left, the discussion about playoff positioning and seeding has been going since the team's Week 10 loss to Seattle. It has only grown recently, with games against the Green Bay Packers, Ravens and Saints.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, this week's game will make the Niners the first team in the Super Bowl era to play three consecutive teams with an .800 or better winning percentage this late in the season. San Francisco dominated the Packers in a 37-8 home win before dropping a 20-17 slugfest to Baltimore last week.

"It's huge to get this kind of atmosphere we've had the last two weeks," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "We talked about how it feels like a playoff atmosphere these last couple of weeks ... We can pull from these three weeks that we've had here that have been a gauntlet of the best teams in the NFL, but right now, we're not focusing on experience. We're focusing on getting our jobs done, and hopefully we can do that this Sunday against New Orleans."

A win against the Saints would allow the Niners to continue on a collision course for the Week 17 rematch with the Seahawks in Seattle.

As it stands, Seattle sits in prime position in the NFC West, and a Niners loss to New Orleans would not only potentially drop the 49ers a full game back of the Seahawks but also make it hard for them to surpass the Saints in a tiebreaker scenario, even if they overtake Seattle.

Further, there's a deep -- though not outlandish -- scenario in which the Niners and Seahawks would be tied at 13-3 if San Francisco loses to New Orleans and then wins its final three games. In that case, the tiebreaker would go all the way down to strength of victory, given that both would have losses to the Ravens and Saints and split with each other. That means the Niners would be counting on the Packers and Washington Redskins to finish with a better combined record than the Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles, which is not the most promising setup.

"We've got ourselves in a position where going into [the] last week, we could control our own destiny, and we’re in that same position this week," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Nothing's really changed on that. That's stuff that until it does, you don't really think about it."

It's a thought exercise the 49ers can avoid with a victory in the Big Easy, where the matchup figures to live up to only the first part of that nickname.