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San Francisco 49ers vs. Denver Broncos Preview and Prediction

Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning

The losers of the past two Super Bowls will take the next step in their quest to get back to that stage when the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos face off tonight on NBC. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers (4-2) have won three in a row while John Fox’s Broncos (4-1) have won both of their games since their Week 4 bye.

These two franchises have spilt their previous 12 regular-season meetings, but it’s the one postseason affair that will always be remembered. San Francisco destroyed Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV, a title game rout that still holds the record for largest margin of victory.

San Francisco 49ers at Denver Broncos

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: NBC

Spread: Denver -6.5

Three Things to Watch

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1. Manning Makes More History?

After throwing three touchdown passes last week against the Jets, Peyton Manning has 506 in his career. He needs just three more to pass Brett Favre for No. 1 on the all-time list. Even though Manning is well off of his record-setting pace from last season, he’s still tied for second in the NFL in touchdown passes (15) and is third in passer rating (110.5). He’s thrown just three interceptions while completing 67 percent of his passes. Manning is averaging three touchdowns per game, so he just needs an “average” game against San Francisco to get the record. Will it come tonight? While Manning is focused more on winning than breaking records, it should be pointed out that the 49ers are just one of two teams (Browns the other) Manning has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns against in his career. In four regular-season games, Manning is 2-2 versus San Francisco with six picks compared to five touchdowns and an 81.8 passer rating. Based on his past history, it will take a career-best showing against this 49ers defense for Manning to stake his claim to yet another record. 

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2. San Francisco’s Spilt Personality on Offense

A signature of John Harbaugh’s teams has been an offense built around running the football. In each of his three seasons as the 49ers head coach, the team has ranked eighth or better in the NFL in rushing offense. San Francisco currently ranks seventh in that category, averaging 135.7 yards rushing per game and trails only Dallas in rushing attempts (192). The formula for the 49ers thus far has been pretty simple – run the ball 30 or more times and win. In four wins, Harbaugh’s team has averaged nearly 36 carries and 151.3 yards rushing per game. In the two losses those numbers drop to 25 and 104.5. While that seems pretty straightforward, San Francisco flipped the script on Monday night when the 49ers had more passing attempts (36) than rushing attempts (30) in the win in St. Louis. To be fair, Colin Kaepernick was more than effective throwing against the Rams’ defense, finishing with a season-high 343 yards and three touchdowns, while the team gained just 89 yards on the ground. The issue is that prior to Monday night, the 49ers had lost the two previous games in which they threw the ball more than they ran it. So as tempting as it may be to let Kaepernick throw it all over the field, the more effective strategy for San Francisco has been to establish the run and use it to wear down the opposition. However, this may be easier said than done tonight. For one, Denver’s offense is certainly capable of striking early and often, putting teams in a position where they are forced to throw to try and keep up. Secondly, the Broncos’ remade defense has been very effective against the run, checking in at No. 4 in the league at 76.8 yards per game. In fact, they are just ahead of the 49ers (79.8) in that category. So while good things tend to happen when San Francisco runs the ball, the question becomes will tonight’s opponent and/or game flow allow the 49ers to do just that?

3. Broncos Finding Balance?

Everyone knows about Peyton Manning and Denver’s potent passing attack. And even though the Broncos’ offense is not piling up the yards or points at the record-setting pace it did last season, it’s still been highly effective. Denver is averaging 389 yards (9th in the NFL) and 29.4 points per game (3rd), while wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders both rank in the top 10 in the league in yards receiving and tight end Julius Thomas leads the NFL in touchdowns (nine). But everyone also remembers how Seattle manhandled the AFC champions in Super Bowl XLVIII, which made it painfully clear to Broncos general manager John Elway that he needed to beef up his defense and develop a more balanced offense. Elway spent a lot of money in free agency on the defensive side of the ball, while pinning his hopes of a more effective ground game on second-year running back Montee Ball. Even though Ball suffered a groin strain two weeks ago and wasn’t that productive when he was on the field, Elway’s master plan is starting to bear some fruit. Denver’s defense currently ranks fourth in the league in yards allowed, which is better than the offense. The Broncos are giving up less than 21 points per game and also have been very solid against the run (76.8 ypg, 4th). And while the rushing offense is well back in the pack (91.2 ypg, 26th), Denver has averaged 115 yards per game since its Week 4 bye and has done this against two pretty decent defenses (Arizona and the New York Jets). Ronnie Hillman rushed for 100 last week in his first start as Ball’s replacement and the more success he and the other backs have moving forward will only make things easier on Manning and the passing game. But again, if the defense continues to play as well as it has, the offense won’t need to carry this team by itself. In other words, the Broncos are sticking to the blueprint that Elway laid out in the offseason.

Final Analysis

After an early rough patch, San Francisco has turned things around in large part by doing what it does best – run the football. Denver meanwhile has started to change its image, as the defense has kept up with the offense in terms of statistical success. The 49ers’ defense is still pretty good in its own right, but its depth has been tested constantly due to injuries and Aldon Smith’s nine-game suspension. Even with Peyton Manning on the verge of breaking Brett Favre’s record for career touchdown passes, the key to this game is the other side of the ball. In that respect, I think Jim Harbaugh’s defense is just too banged up and will eventually wear down in the thin air at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Manning may not break Favre’s record tonight, but he’ll still get the chance to celebrate after the game.

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Prediction: Denver 27, San Francisco 20