How the 49ers can win… They get to play at home, where they went 7-1 during the regular season. The formula is clear: They must run the ball on offense to control the clock and the game, and rely on their defense to slow down Brees and the New Orleans offense. The 49ers are built to do that. They ranked eighth in the league in rushing offense. They were fourth in the league in total defense and second in scoring defense, and they had an NFL-best turnover margin of plus-28. The 49ers will try to prevent a passing duel between Alex Smith and Brees. Smith was efficient during the regular season, with 17 TD passes and only five interceptions, but had 2,332 fewer passing yards than the New Orleans quarterback.
More on this matchup:
Top pick Alex Smith has turned boos into cheers as 49ers QB, reshaping career under Harbaugh
Sean Payton expects a heavy load for his top run stoppers in playoff game at San Francisco
After relatively quiet regular season, Saints RB Pierre Thomas ready to shine in playoffs
Thirty years after ‘The Catch,’ 49ers hope to strike gold again
Denver Broncos (9-8) at New England Patriots (13-3)
Saturday, 8 p.m., Gillette Stadium (CBS)
How the Broncos can win…The Broncos’ dramatic first round playoff triumph came after they lost their final three games of the regular season and got into the playoffs at 8-8. QB Tim Tebow threw for 316 yards and two TDs on only 10 completions against the Steelers, who led the league in total defense during the regular season. The Broncos started well but couldn’t keep pace with the Patriots when they lost to them in Denver, 41-23, on Dec. 18. The key this time will be to avoid turnovers. They had three of them (to none by the Patriots) in the first meeting. The coach who drafted Tebow in Denver, Josh McDaniels, rejoins the Patriots this week to work alongside soon-to-depart offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Why the Patriots can win… The Patriots have lost their last three postseason games, beginning with the Super Bowl defeat to the Giants that denied them an unbeaten 2007 season. QB Tom Brady had a superb season in 2011, with 5,235 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. WR Wes Welker was second in the league with 1,569 receiving yards but, increasingly, the biggest matchup problem for opposing defenses has been TE Rob Gronkowski, who had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in his second pro season. The issue, of course, is whether the New Englad defense will do its part. The Patriots ranked 31st in the league in pass defense and 31st in total defense during the regular season. They were better in scoring defense, ranking 15th, and had a plus-17 turnover margin. If the defense can get a few turnovers and surrender field goals instead of TDs, that probably would be enough for Brady to get the Patriots back into the postseason win column.