Can't win this game without the alphabet

SANTA CLARA — On Monday, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was asked about a particular facet of the upcoming playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. He wasn't in an analytical mood.

"Everybody starts talking about the keys," Harbaugh said. "This is the key; that's the key. Before you know it, you've got 26 different keys to the game. Which is really accurate."

He's right. The Press Democrat has, in fact, uncovered 26 keys to this battle of high-flying offense and blue-collar defense — one for each letter of the alphabet:

A is for Akers: If the 49ers have to line up for a game-winning, 48-yard field goal, there's no one they'd rather have making the kick than machine-like David Akers.

B is for Ball control: The best way to control record-setting quarterback Drew Brees? Keep his offense off the field for as long as possible.

C is for Chunk plays: Both of these defenses have been susceptible to big plays this season.

D is for Deflections at the line: About the only knock on Brees is his height (6 feet). The 49ers must try to knock down some of his passes before they reach their target.

E is for Elusive little halfback: Darren Sproles (5-foot-6, 190 pounds) is a dangerous threat when he gets in the open field. Assigning coverage is a major priority for the Niners.

F is for Frederick P. Soft: If he were to show up now, at this most crucial juncture, the 49ers would be toast.

G is for Gore: This one is easy. Even Harbaugh admitted that halfback Frank Gore is one of his 26 keys.

H is for Home-field advantage: Whether or not the Saints are really slower on grass, it will be nice to have the Candlestick crowd cheering at the right times.

I is for Injuries: Tight end Delanie Walker, out with a broken jaw, will not play for the 49ers. The jury is still out on wide receiver Ted Ginn (ankle) and defensive end Ray McDonald (hamstring).

J is for Jimmy Graham: The Saints' young tight end is 6-7, with speed and long arms. Maybe that's why he led the team with 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.

K is for Kickoffs and punts: A long return could be a game-changer for either team. The 49ers haven't taken one to the house since Week 1.

L is for Lights: This isn't a night game, but another neighborhood power outage as the shadows grow long would be a major annoyance.

M is for Mighty Men: If Harbaugh's guys come through, they'll be moving on — and up — with a humble heart.

N is for NaVorro and P-Willy: San Francisco has the best pair of inside linebackers in the NFL. Every ounce of their speed will be needed against the Saints.

O is for Overtime rules: Remember, under the new model, neither team will be able to steal a victory with a field goal directly following the overtime coin toss.

P is for Postseason experience: If it means anything, it's an advantage for New Orleans, which is loaded with players from its 2009 Super Bowl championship team.

Q is for Quarterback play: No one is expecting Alex Smith to keep pace with Brees; if Smith can simply be mistake-free, it will go a long way toward a 49ers victory.

R is for Red zone: The 49ers have won plenty of games on Akers' field goals. You get the feeling they'll need touchdowns to overcome the Saints.

S is for Smiths: San Francisco has four (Alex, Justin, Aldon and Reggie). New Orleans has just one (Will). This one isn't even close.

T is for Tempo: The Saints would love to get into a shooting match and push the score into the 30s. The 49ers strive to keep it in the teens. May the best pace win.

U is for Underdog status: New Orleans goes into this game as a 4-point favorite — a motivational card that you know Harbaugh is playing.

V is for Vilma: He might not quite be Patrick Willis, but middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma remains a sideline-to-sideline force for the Saints.

W is for Williams' blitzes: New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams swamped the 49ers with blitzes in an exhibition game; expect more of the same in the playoffs.

X is for Xs and Os: Harbaugh calls fake field goals and throws to 330-pound linemen. Saints coach Sean Payton dialed up an onside kick in the Super Bowl. Let the mad science begin.

Y is for Yards after the catch: The Saints love to spread the field, then get the ball to one of their speedsters crossing the middle. Sound tackling is advised.

Z is for Z receiver: You never know who will emerge as New Orleans' go-to receiver on any given day. The smart money is on flanker Marques Colston, who has an uncanny relationship with Brees.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.