The 49ers defense has allowed an NFL low 14.5 points per game since Week 4. They also haven't allowed an opponent to score more than 24 points during that span, but it was a case of jekyll and hyde in their two games against Seattle. In Week 2, the 49ers surrendered 172 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. In Week 14, they stiffened up and only allowed 86 yards on the ground and one touchdown. Those 172 rushing yards in Week 2 were the third most ever against a Harbaugh-coached 49ers team. It goes without saying that the 49ers need to look a lot more like the 49ers of Week 14 than Week 2. Aldon Smith has been very disruptive against Seattle in his career with two sacks in the last meeting and four in his six career games against them. I like the 49ers defense more than the Seattle offense in this matchup.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportDerick E. Hingle
49ers at Seahawks -- 49ers offense
The 49ers were the third-worst passing offense in the NFL this season, but maintained the third best rushing offense. Despite the low passing yards total, Colin Kaepernick was pretty good at protecting the ball with only eight interceptions thrown this season. Half of those interceptions came against the Seahawks and he can’t afford to turn the ball over like that this weekend. In his defense, this will be the first time he has faced the Seahawks this season with his full arsenal of wide receivers. Their ability to run the ball will be the difference in this game. The 49ers are a perfect 13-0 this season when they have at least 25 rushing attempts in the game. Frank Gore has five rushing touchdowns in his last five playoff games but has just one touchdown in the last eight games against the Seahawks. That must change on Sunday.
Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY SportsSam Sharpe
49ers at Seahawks -- Seahawks defense
Seattle’s defense will use a similar strategy like the one they employed last weekend against the Saints. Much like the Saints, the 49ers best offensive weapon plays tight end, and it will be up to Earl Thomas to shut down Vernon Davis just as he did Jimmy Graham. In what could easily be an NFL Defensive Player of the Year season for Thomas, he was the only defensive back to have 100 or more tackles and five or more interceptions this season. On top of that he held Graham to just one catch for eight yards last week. The 49ers will try to suck him up with play action and read option plays and force him into bad positions on the field, but that will be tough against a player as smart as Thomas. Up front, the Seahawks will use a balanced rush to try and contain Kaepernick and probably use a spy on most defensive snaps. If they try and blitz with man coverage on the outside, Kaepernick will look to pull it down and run for chunks of yards while the defense has their backs to him.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY SportsSteven Bisig
49ers at Seahawks -- Seahawks offense
Russell Wilson has selected to his second straight Pro Bowl and has just one career loss at home in his two-year career. That makes it hard to bet against his production on Sunday. Wilson, who hasn’t thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game since Week 13, is averaging 65.1 fewer yards per game in that span. Wilson is an even 2-2 against San Francisco in his career and he will need to step up especially while the Niners make it priority number one to stop Marshawn Lynch dead. Lynch’s runs not only produce significant yardage for this team, but they energize the crowd and can create a shift of momentum in a single stiff arm. Lynch has played historically well against the 49ers and has gone over 95 yards rushing four of the last five games against them.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY SportsSteven Bisig
Patriots at Broncos -- Patriots defense
The Patriots defense has played with a bend but don’t break mentality this season and ranks outside the top-10 in all but one defensive category. However, they have forced the most takeaways in the playoffs and are forcing opposing quarterbacks to an average of 79.1 passer rating. The Patriots pass rush during the season was led by Chandler Jones, but he has yet to earn a postseason sack in three career playoff games. Jones will need to show up on Sunday in order to force Peyton Manning off his spot and reset his feet. In the secondary, Aqib Talib, is the name everyone knows, but he hasn’t broken up a single pass in the Patriots last five games. Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard both have graded out better than Talib. All three will need to be on their best game against the foursome of Thomas, Thomas, Decker and Welker.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY SportsBob Donnan
Patriots at Broncos -- Patriots offense
New England, who is decimated by injuries, has fewer weapons than any time in memory. But LeGarrette Blount was the blunt force that the Patriots used to pound the Colts' defense into submission. Rob Gronkowski played in Weeks 9-14 of this season, and during that time, the Patriots threw the ball 60.8 percent of the time, but without him, they are relying more heavily on the run while limiting their passing attempts to just 48.4 percent of offensive plays. The Patriots had the second most rushing yards in playoff history last week, 21 yards shy of the 1985 Dolphins when they tallied 255 yards on the ground. Blount, Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen will once again play a major role in Sunday’s game, but the Patriots can’t afford to get in a shootout and abandon the running game altogether.
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY SportsAndrew Weber
Patriots at Broncos -- Broncos defense
The Broncos allowed 24.9 points per game this season. That is significant because only one Super Bowl winner has given up more points and that's the 2011 New York Giants. The Broncos surrendered 34 points in the Week 12 matchup between these two teams and that was with a healthy Von Miller. Miller has since been lost for the season with a knee injury and Shaun Phillips has once again stepped up in his absence. Phillips, who was brought in to replace Elvis Dumervil, has actually become the best pass rusher on this team with 10 regular-season sacks and added two more last week. The Broncos are also a man down in the secondary after losing Chris Harris Jr. to an injury. Quentin Jammer replaced Harris and allowed Philip Rivers to mount a comeback attempt late in the game. Jammer allowed three receptions for 95 yards and one touchdown on just 25 snaps. He is the weakness Tom Brady will look to exploit on critical third downs and big scoring plays.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY SportRobert Hanashiro
Patriots at Broncos -- Broncos offense
Denver is one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the NFL, but even they have turned to their running game and are playing a more ball-controlling style late in the season. Last week, the Broncos possessed the ball for over 35 minutes and limited the amount of time that Philip Rivers could attack their susceptible defense. The Patriots have always been good about identifying an opponent’s biggest threat and eliminating them from the game. That will be tough against the Broncos, who are the first team in NFL history with five players to have 10 or more touchdowns. In their Week 12 loss to the Patriots, it was actually Jacob Tamme who led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. It should come as no surprise that Peyton Manning had season lows in completion percentage and passing yards in that game. But Knowshon Moreno rushed for 224 yards on 37 carries in that same game, both career highs. Moreno probably won’t match that same output, but he will still be very productive as the Patriots will once again look to shut down Manning and the four feared wide receivers.