KICKOFF: Sunday, 2:15 Mountain Time
RECORDS: 49ers 6-9, third place in NFC West; Broncos 9-6, second place in AFC West
SITE: Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver
TV: FOX, Curt Menefee, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
2006 RANKINGS: 49ers: offense 26th (7th rush, 28th pass); defense 27th (19th rush, 27th pass). Broncos: offense 20th (6th rush, 27th pass); defense 14th (11th rush, 23rd pass)
SERIES HISTORY: 12th meeting. The Broncos lead the series 6-5 with victories in the past two meetings. The teams last faced each other on Sept. 15, 2002, a game in which quarterback Brian Griese threw two TD passes in a 24-14 Broncos victory. San Francisco's biggest victory in the series was a 55-10 blowout of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. Denver coach Mike Shanahan helped lead San Francisco to its last Super Bowl, at the end of the 1994 season, as the team's offensive coordinator. He became Broncos coach the following year.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The 49ers have a significant issue without suspended WR Antonio Bryant. Even against eight-man fronts, RB Frank Gore can have success -- but San Francisco now lacks the big-play threat to keep defenses remotely honest. And if the 49ers fall behind, QB Alex Smith will have almost no chance to mount a comeback while forcing the ball against CBs Champ Bailey and Darrent Williams. However, he has been looking more often to promising rookie TE Vernon Davis, who has the ability to work the middle of the field and catch the Broncos' safeties if they over-play the run. Meanwhile, the Broncos want to continue to build the confidence of QB Jay Cutler. The 49ers have nothing to lose and coach Mike Nolan will certainly devise some special schemes in an attempt to take advantage of Cutler's inexperience. Still, the Broncos are at home and should be able to run the ball enough to put Cutler in manageable passing situations.
FAST FACTS: 49ers -- Are 5-0 when Smith has at least a 95.0 passer rating. ... Gore needs 29 rushing yards to break Garrison Hearst's single-season team record of 1,570 set in 1998. Broncos -- Clinch a playoff spot with a victory or a loss by Kansas City. ... DE Elvis Dumervil is third among all rookies with 8.0 sacks.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Yards rushing or receiving needed by Frank Gore to become the 53rd player in NFL history to finish a season with 2,000 combined yards from scrimmage. 59 -- Penalties committed this season by the Broncos, the fewest in the NFL. The franchise record for fewest penalties in a season is 63.
QUOTES TO NOTE
--- "Our lack of consistency is a lack of team maturity. We need to continue to get better at that. It is what you see in young teams. It bothers me that we can't be more mature than that." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the ups and downs of the season.
--- "This is it, you got to let it all hang. If you're hurt, play hurt. That's it. If you got a bone sticking out, tape it up and play. That's just how it is now." -- Broncos defensive end Kenard Lang on being in a playoff race late in the season.
49ERS GAME PLAN: This is a big game for the 49ers, as coach Mike Nolan would like to see his team approach this as the first game of the 2007 season. In other words, it's a chance for the 49ers to gain some momentum for next season. The formula for the 49ers to be successful has been a strong ground game, no turnovers, and not surrendering big plays defensive. They will need a strong game from Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, who has rushed for 1,542 yards and eight touchdowns with an impressive 5.5-yard average. The 49ers get into problems when they fall behind quickly and feel as if they have to abandon the running game. Last week, the 49ers were down 20-3 to the Cardinals in the first half, and Gore was no longer a factor in the run game. He finished with 51 yards on just 11 carries. Quarterback Alex Smith has been looking more toward rookie tight end Vernon Davis, who had a career-high 91 yards receiving last week. Davis is not exactly sure-handed at this stage in his career, but once he gets his hands on the ball and gets into the secondary he is very difficult to bring down. Defensively, the 49ers need to be geared to stop the run. The Broncos love to run the ball, as they rank sixth in the league in yards rushing per game. Rookie quarterback Jay Cutler seems to be getting more confident with each game he plays, but Nolan and defensive coordinator Billy Davis are expected to come up with some blitzes and coverage schemes in hopes of confusing the youngster. Also, with nothing to lose in this game, the 49ers can be expected to pull out every stop as they hope to play the role of spoiler.
BRONCOS GAME PLAN: The Broncos will be fired up for Sunday's game if their playoff berth hasn't been clinched. Their approach might change if their playoff seed has been clinched before kickoff, which is possible. Unlike last week, when the Broncos focused on stopping Cincinnati's passing game, they will probably load up against 49ers running back Frank Gore, one of the best in the NFL. Denver would like to get an early lead and take Gore out of the game. Offensively, the Broncos should be able to move the ball against the 49ers. They would like to establish the run early and not put too much pressure on rookie quarterback Jay Cutler, although Cutler has seemed very comfortable in his last two starts.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- 49ers RB Frank Gore vs. Broncos MLB Al Wilson: Gore is the key to the 49ers' offense. He leads the NFC in rushing and averages 5.5 yards per rushing attempt. Much of the onus in stopping him will rest with Wilson, the Broncos' leading tackler with 113 stops this season, including 88 unassisted tackles. The 49ers might be playing without starting LT Jonas Jennings, who sustained a right shoulder injury last week against the Cardinals. Second-year player Adam Snyder could start. The 49ers will still try to run over the left side behind LG Larry Allen.
--- 49ers RDE Roderick Green vs. Broncos LT Erik Pears: Green is making a strong case for his return next season. He recorded two sacks Sunday against the Cardinals, and really gave the 49ers their only semblance of a pass rush. He also had an important sack several weeks ago working one-on-one against Seahawks LT Walter Jones. Green has 4.5 sacks in eight games. Pears is a first-year player who has surrendered six sacks in nine games after taking over Matt Lepsis, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
--- 49ers CBs Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer vs. Broncos WRs Javon Walker and Rod Smith: Harris has been a surprising pickup for the 49ers in the offseason, as he leads the team with six interceptions and 14 passes defensed. Both Harris and Spencer had their problems against the Cardinals' Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald last week. Walker leads the Broncos with 65 receptions for 1,059 yards and eight TDs, while Smith has 47 catches for 453 yards and three scores. The 49ers need Harris to put the clamps on Walker, who collaborated with quarterback Jay Cutler on a pair of long touchdowns the last two weeks.
--- 49ers TE Vernon Davis vs. Broncos SSL D.J. Williams and S Domonique Foxworth: Davis has shown flashes of his huge talent, but he has also demonstrated some of the inconsistencies of a rookie. Davis, who missed six games earlier this season with a broken leg, is rounding back into shape. He had a career-high 91 yards receiving against the Cardinals. The 49ers will try to get the ball in his hands, so he can use his great speed and size after the catch. Usually, safety Sam Brandon would match up with Davis in the Broncos "big nickel" defense. But Brandon is done for the season. Davis, who had 91 yards last week, is a threat for a few big plays in the passing game.
--- Broncos OT George Foster vs. 49ers DT Bryant Young. Young, a veteran, could cause some problems for the Broncos. Foster kept his starting job even though Adam Meadows was active last week. Whether it's Foster or Meadows at right tackle, slowing down Young is the top priority on the line.
49ERS: LT Jonas Jennings (right shoulder) is doubtful and unlikely to play after sustaining a shoulder dislocation last week. If he doesn't play, Adam Snyder would step into the action. Jennings did not practice this week. LB Derek Smith (left hamstring) aggravated a strain that kept him out of two games earlier this month. Smith did not practice earlier this week and is listed as questionable. If he is unable to play, the 49ers will likely go with Jeff Ulbrich in the middle, though it appeared late in the week that Smith would be able to answer the starting bell. S Mark Roman (left ankle) is expected to play. He missed one series Sunday against the Cardinals due to the injury. Roman didn't practice Wednesday, but he returned to practice later in the week and is expected to start against the Broncos.
BRONCOS: LB Al Wilson has a thumb injury and his back is hurting. He was held out of practice Wednesday but the Broncos are confident he'll play. LB Keith Burns has an injured hand, and he's questionable on the injury report. He did practice early in the week and should be ready for Sunday's game. WR Javon Walker has wrist and shoulder injuries, but he is probable to play on Sunday. CB Darrent Williams sat out Cincinnati's last drive last Sunday because of back spasms but should play this week.
Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Broncos
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