SANTA CLARA Pinpointing the best game on a loaded 49ers schedule is a difficult task, but the team's Nov. 25 contest in New Orleans gained even more electricity over the past two days.
On Monday, 49ers safety Donte Whitner, while discussing his now-famous hit in San Francisco's divisional playoff game Jan. 14 against New Orleans, touched on the Saints' alleged bounty program.
"If you have the right type of guys in that room, you don't have to set bounties or pay money for guys to play physical and play hard," he said.
"It's going to come naturally. That's the type of guys we have on our defense. That's why we don't have to do those type of things."
That led to a Tuesday response by Saints starting linebacker Scott Shanle, who used Twitter to tell Whitner to stay out of the matter.
"Guy needs to shut his mouth and mind his own business," Shanle wrote. "Don't remember them winning the superbowl. U still ringless. We got one and working on two now. Try to keep up."
The powder keg at the center of the dispute is the audiotape from the Saints' defensive meeting Jan. 13. During an obscenity-laced speech, then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams targeted specific body parts on specific San Francisco offensive players.
Williams said he wanted running back Frank Gore's "head sideways" and wanted to test whether "little" wide receiver Kyle Williams had recovered from a concussion.
At one point, Gregg Williams allegedly made a gesture rubbing his fingers together that indicated he would pay money for a big hit on 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
Williams has been suspended indefinitely by the NFL. Saints Coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the season, while four players linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita and defensive linemen Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith also face suspensions ranging from three games to the season.
The 49ers mostly have been circumspect about Williams' pregame speech.
Smith has said he feels as though quarterbacks are targeted in every game. Gore, who was on Vilma's team in high school and college, said being targeted by the opposition was a sign of respect.
Whitner, 27, has been the most critical.
Perhaps the most thoughtful and honest 49er when it comes to interviews, the safety drew a stark contrast between the defensive meeting rooms of the Saints and 49ers, who were going over their plan at the same time in a hotel just down the street from where the Saints were staying.
"Believe it or not, he's very calm," Whitner said of Williams' counterpart, Vic Fangio. "The way he is during practice is the same way he is the night before the game. He's very calm. He informed us of everything we have to do to get the win, the players we had to take out of the game not physically or literally but to take them out of the game, not allow them to make plays."
Whitner then noted it was "very ironic" that he not a member of the Saints' defense delivered the biggest and most game-changing blow. He stopped an impressive opening drive by the Saints by jarring the ball from running back Pierre Thomas and knocking Thomas out cold.
Whitner said hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't ask him about it.
"Like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe you knocked out Pierre Thomas.' " Whitner said. "Or, 'I can't believe it. It was such a big play.' Or, 'You changed the game.' "
In fact, "The Hit" left a mark on Whitner's private life. This offseason, he tried to complete his degree in business and consumer affairs by taking classes at San Jose State. But people kept bugging him about the Saints game.
So he started taking classes online instead.