One final, seemingly ludicrous question was lobbed Alex Smith's way Tuesday as he described his mindset for the 49ers upcoming playoff opener:

What are his chances of throwing for more yards Saturday than Drew Brees?

"I don't care," Smith said. "I really don't care. I'm looking to outscore him. He can throw for how many yards as he wants."

Brees, the New Orleans Saints' red-hot quarterback, passed for 5,476 yards this season to break Dan Marino's 27-year-old NFL record. Last Saturday, Brees reeled off a playoff-record 466 yards and three touchdown passes in a 45-28, wild-card win at home against the Detroit Lions.

That set up Saturday's divisional-round trip to Candlestick Park between the third-seeded Saints (14-3) and the second-seeded 49ers (13-3).

Smith passed for a career-high 3,144 yards this season, puny by Brees' standards but the most yards by a 49ers quarterback since Jeff Garcia in 2002, when the 49ers made their last playoff appearance.

"There are a lot of different ways to win in this league," Smith said. "We're not going to be somebody we're not. We're going to continue to do what we do."

A cynic might say that means settling for field goals. However, Smith said, the 49ers' whatever-it-takes-to-win style won't make it easy on the Saints defense.

Brees said Smith has had a phenomenal year, noting: "I admire how he's hung in there and just continued to fight and try to get better each week, each year."


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The two quarterbacks met seven years ago, when Smith was coming out of Utah, and trained together near their San Diego homes. Brees said he has watched several of Smith's games this season, and he singled out Smith's 41-yard sideline pass to Michael Crabtree that set up a winning field goal at Seattle on Christmas Eve.

Brees also lauded Smith's decision making and mere five interceptions this season.

Of the four quarterbacks left in the NFC playoffs, Smith is the only one who hasn't celebrated a Super Bowl. Brees won his two years ago, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers did so last season and the New York Giants' Eli Manning in the 2007 season.

"Obviously this is why you play, to get into the postseason and get a ticket to the dance," Smith said. "(I'm) excited to be hosting a home game. Can't wait to see what the stadium is like."

  • Saints coach Sean Payton disputed an August report that he was upset 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh did not call him before their exhibition opener, in which the blitz-oriented Saints won 24-3.

    "There is no bad blood," Payton said. " ... The idea that I was offended that he didn't call is nuts."

    Saints play-by-play announcer Jim Henderson told a radio show that Payton expected a phone call to "figure out a gentlemen's agreement" on how to play the opener and that Payton ordered up a blitz-heavy defense when that call never came.

    Payton said Tuesday that the Saints typically blitz a lot in one or two preseason games each year.

  • Ray McDonald (hamstring), did not practice but fellow defensive lineman Justin Smith (knee) did. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of both players: "They're fine."

  • Tight end Delanie Walker, out since Dec. 24 with a fractured jaw, did conditioning work on a side field. Walker said that he's "feeling good, so, hopefully some good news next Monday." Coach Jim Harbaugh, as of Monday, had not ruled him out for Saturday's game.

  • Linebacker Patrick Willis said the bye week aided his recovery from a hamstring injury.

  • Other recently injured players who practiced were receiver/returner Ted Ginn (ankle), cornerbacks Carlos Rogers (knee) and Chris Culliver (knee), fullback Bruce Miller (knee) and receiver Kyle Williams, who wore a no-contact jersey as he recovers from a Dec. 24 concussion.

  • To a man, the 49ers say pressuring Brees is critical to their defensive success.

    Good luck. Brees was sacked 19 times in the Saints first eight games, including six times against the Rams in a loss Oct. 30. He has been sacked only seven times the past nine games, all victories.

    Brees called that Rams game a wake-up call for him, the offensive line and the protection scheme. Message received. He has attempted 357 passes the past nine games and been sacked fewer than 2 percent of the time.49ers safety Dashon Goldson said he is confident Fangio will devise a scheme that will allow for pressure on Brees.

    "I'm not sure what coach has got cooking up, but I'm sure it's going to be good," Goldson said. "He's really smart, and he'll know what we need to do to win this game."

    Staff writer Steve Corkran contributed to this report. For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.