Saints on offense: Let the track meet begin! The Saints have a lightning-fast attack led by superbly accurate and confident quarterback Drew Brees. The slightly undersized signal-caller threw for an NFL-record 5,476 yards in the regular season and followed up with a 466-yard, three-touchdown effort vs. the Lions last week. Brees has excellent pre-snap recognition and can make all the throws. He has a deft touch on shorties, fires lasers over the middle, and throws one of the best deep balls in the business. Brees’s stable of pass catchers is impressive, including tight end Jimmy Graham (he has Gronk-like qualities), Marques Colston (he’s big and fast), Robert Meachem (he’s speedy and quick), and Devery Henderson (he’s fast and reliable). Darren Sproles is an explosive runner and receiver. The little guy must be accounted for on every snap.
49ers on defense: Rangy linebackers NaVorro Bowman (he’s agile and destructive) and Patrick Willis (when healthy, there is nobody better) are elite playmakers. Safeties Dashon Goldson (6 INTs, 67 tackles) and Donte Whitner will punish receivers.
49ers on offense: The 49ers have a tremendous 1-2 tailback tandem in rugged Frank Gore (1,211 yards) and rookie Kendall Hunter (473). Gore is a compact, 5-foot-9-inch, 217-pound chiseled beast. He has good vision and the patience to let his blocks develop. When they don’t, he simply runs over everything in his way. A no-nonsense north-south runner, Gore never goes down on first contact. Hunter runs tougher than any 5-7, 199-pounder has a right to. He will bang between the tackles but can also bounce outside. QB Alex Smith is enjoying the best season of his six-year career. A confident game manager with a decent arm, Smith has earned his teammates’ respect. He thrives in the short and intermediate game and does a nice job protecting the ball (17 TDs, 5 INTs). Michael Crabtree (great speed, hands, and body control) and Vernon Davis (a monster after the catch) are Smith’s top targets.
Saints on defense: Linebackers Jonathan Vilma (he’s instinctive and explosive) and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (he’s always around the ball) are very active. Safety Roman Harper has 95 tackles and a team-high 7.5 sacks.
Special teams: Sproles is among the league’s best return man. The 5-6, 190-pounder has outstanding vision and quickness. He runs with great balance and has deceptive strength; arm tacklers are wasting their time on this guy . . . New Orleans’s John Kasay has long been one of the NFL’s best kickers. He hit 28 field goals this season, with a long of 53 . . . Saints punter Thomas Morstead averages 48.4 yards per boot . . . San Francisco’s Ted Ginn Jr. (no, he didn’t retire) is still a top-notch returner. Ginn has impressive open-field acceleration and averaged 27.6 yards on 29 kick returns and 12.3 yards on 38 punt returns. He brought back one of each for touchdowns . . . 49ers’ David Akers kicked a league-record 44 field goals in his first season in the Bay area (the Eagles are still kicking themselves - pun intented) . . . Andy Lee averages 50.9 yards per punt.
Miscellany: Saints have won six straight in series . . . 49ers led NFL with a plus-28 turnover differential . . . Saints coach Sean Payton is 5-2 in playoffs . . . Postseason debut for San Fran coach Jim Harbaugh.JIM McBRIDE