KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
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)
PREDICTION: Broncos 19-9
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 7.0 sacks.
--WR Taylor Jacobs, acquired during training camp from the Redskins for CB Mike Rumph, will see extended action as the team's No. 3 receiver. Jacobs saw a season-high 21 offensive plays last week against the Cardinals, catching one pass for 9 yards. For the season, he has two receptions for 14 yards.
--S Mark Roman, who is listed as probable with a left ankle sprain, returned to practiced Thursday and is expected to start Sunday against the Broncos. Roman had a fine season after signing a one-year contract with the 49ers during training camp.
--C Eric Heitmann, who sustained a broken right tibia Dec. 14 in a game against the Seahawks, has been taking part in offensive line meetings since the injury. He had surgery to place a titanium rod in his leg, and he is expected to be off crutches in six weeks. Heitmann said his goal is to take part in the organized team activities (OTAs).
--S Keith Lewis, scheduled to be a restricted free agent, has played well since entering the starting lineup Nov. 5. Lewis has 66 tackles, two interceptions, one sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, six passes defensed and 16 special teams tackles this season.
--LB Derek Smith, who is questionable for Sunday's game against the Broncos, needs seven tackles to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with 100 or more tackles. Smith entered this season with nine straight seasons of 100 or more tackles.
--LT Jonas Jennings was downgraded to doubtful after sitting out practice Thursday with a right shoulder sprain. Jennings sustained the injury in the first quarter of the 49ers' game Sunday against the Cardinals.
--LB Al Wilson didn't practice Thursday as a precaution. He has a sore back, but the Broncos expect him to play this week.
--LB Keith Burns hasn't missed any practice time despite a hand injury. He is listed as questionable but likely will play Sunday.
--RB Mike Bell needs one more touchdown to tie the NFL record for touchdowns by an undrafted rookie. Indianapolis' Dominic Rhodes holds the record (nine).
--QB Jay Cutler had a good game despite cold weather last week. Cutler might be tested again Sunday. A snowstorm hit Denver on Thursday and might continue until Saturday.
--CB Champ Bailey gets a lot of attention for his cover skills, but he is one of Denver's best tacklers as well. Bailey has 92 tackles, which is second on the team.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Quarterback Alex Smith has been on the field for all 842 offensive snaps this season for the 49ers, who play their final game of the year Sunday against the Broncos.
That was one of his goals when the season began. It was also one of the goals for Trent Dilfer, who came to the 49ers to serve as Smith's backup and mentor.
"The first thing he said to me was that he didn't want to see the field," Smith said of Dilfer, who was acquired from the Browns in an offseason trade. "He said my biggest goal should be to play every snap. He didn't want to set foot out there."
Although Smith still shows a lot of room for improvement, he made remarkable strides in his second NFL season. After being the lowest-rated passer in the league as a rookie, he has improved to No. 20 this season with a rating of 75.2. His rating places him above such veterans as Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre.
Dilfer, a 13-year veteran, has a chance to make it through an NFL season without getting in a game for the first time, and he is not complaining. In fact, he never played in fewer than five games in any of his first 12 NFL seasons.
Dilfer said he hopes he does not play Sunday against the Broncos.
"I hope not, because we don't want anything to happen to Alex," he said. "I think it's semi-heroic to be a guy that's young in this league and to play every snap and to endure the things that he's endured.
"I've always said the best ability for your starting quarterback is availability. It's very important to this football team that they know week in and week out the guy that's your toughest guy on the team, that's going to stay in there regardless of the circumstances, and he's going to show up and do everything he can to help us win."
Broncos running back Tatum Bell said struggling late in the season, and losing playing time to Mike Bell after fumbling in each of the past two games, has affected his play.
"I've got to hit the hole, quit thinking too much, quit worrying about the fumbles, quit worrying about Mike coming in and taking over," Tatum Bell said.
Tatum Bell has only 79 rushing yards the past two weeks. Each week, a lost fumble has led to a touchdown, and Mike Bell has gone into the game. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he has faith in Tatum Bell and told him to quit worrying about the fumbles. However, Shanahan also acknowledged that Tatum Bell won't be playing if he continues to fumble.
"I know if I fumble, I won't be in there," Tatum Bell said. "Especially if I fumble and Mike goes in there and does well, I sure won't be in there."
He added that the fumbles have been caused by a lack of concentration. He thinks that he has struggled to run the ball lately because he isn't hitting the hole hard enough, and he has been too patient on his runs instead of running aggressively.
"I just got to get back to playing," Bell said.
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