Saints tight end Jimmy Graham vs. 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis
Willis has covered tight ends more than in previous years, and coaches praised his work against Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew and the Giants' Jake Ballard. However, Willis never has faced a tight end with Graham's athleticism. A former power forward at the University of Miami, Graham emerged this season to lead the Saints in receptions (99), receiving yards (1,310) and touchdowns (11). Willis, meanwhile, will share coverage duties with several 49ers but will match up against Graham when the tight end lines up on the end of the offensive line.
49ers defensive end Justin Smith vs. Saints left guard Carl Nicks
This will be a clash of All-Pros. The key to disrupting Brees and the Saints' passing attack is collapsing the center of his pocket and throwing the quarterback off rhythm. Smith, fellow defensive end Ray McDonald and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga have been adept at doing that this season. The Saints, however, have built a virtual wall around Brees with Nicks and right guard Jahri Evans, who also was named to the All-Pro team earlier this month. The two New Orleans guards also will try to spark an inside running game with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas that was effective last week in a wild-card win over the Lions.
49ers running back Frank Gore vs. Saints inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma
Gore hasn't surpassed 100 yards since Week 9 against the Washington Redskins. That might have been by design. The 49ers' coaches used Gore sparingly in the second half of the season to allow him to recover from a series of nicks and sprains but also to make sure he's fresh for the playoffs. Look for Gore to get the same 20-25 carries he was getting during a five-game streak of 100-plus-yard games earlier in the season. Trying to stop him will be middle linebacker Vilma, a fellow University of Miami product who is one of Gore's closest friends off the field.
49ers tight end Vernon Davis vs. Saints safety Roman Harper
Davis caught four passes for 78 yards when the two teams met early last season, a 25-22 Saints win. Davis has been more effective lately as he has become more comfortable with the 49ers' offense. He had his most prolific day as a pass catcher 118 receiving yards in the season finale against the Rams. Davis promises to be targeted even more with fellow tight end Delanie Walker (jaw) unable to play Saturday. Harper, meanwhile, is one of the Saints' best tacklers and their top blitzer. His 71/2 sacks led the Saints this season and were the most by any defensive back in the league. He twice was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week this season. The Saints, however, have had matchup problems with tight ends and appear to be even more vulnerable with Harper nursing an ankle injury.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees vs. 49ers safety Dashon Goldson
Brees has had the most prolific season of any quarterback in NFL history. He is the brain and the heart of the Saints' offense, and stopping him or merely limiting him to 300 or so passing yards is the key to beating New Orleans. That will require a team effort by the 49ers' defense, but Goldson will have the biggest role in taking away Brees' longest passes. Part of the quarterback's effectiveness is that he usually makes the right decisions on where to throw, and he has three wide receivers Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Goldson is the 49ers' top safety, but he can be overly aggressive. He must keep the Saints' receivers in front of him to ensure that Brees' big completions don't become backbreakers.