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The New England Patriots won’t get any reprieve following their most impressive win of the season over Houston on Monday night. Their next opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, are every bit as challenging a foe as the Texans were, and in some areas are far tougher. The 49ers (9-3-1, 1st in the NFC West), are arguably the best defense in the NFL, allowing the fewest points and ranking 1st or 2nd in almost all yardage categories. Facing the top scoring Patriots offense sets up the old cliche: The Unstoppable Force meets The Immovable Object.
Besides the great matchup, both teams have very little room for error in their quests for top seeding in their conference. The Patriots control their own bye-week destiny, securing at least the #2 seed if they win the remainder of their games. Thanks to a tie game with the Rams, the 49ers are holding their #2 seed by just a half game over Green Bay, and still need a few more wins to keep Seattle at bay for the NFC West division title.
|New England||San Francisco|
|Record||10-3 (1st in AFCE)||9-3-1 (1st in NFCW)|
|Points/G||36.3 (1st)||24.3 (13th)|
|Points All./G||21.1 (11th)||14.2 (1st)|
|Rush Yds/G||139.9 (7th)||161.5 (2nd)|
|Rush Yds All./G||100.8 (8th)||90.8 (T-2nd)|
|Pass Yds/G||285.8 (5th)||198.5 (26th)|
|Pass Yds All./G||275.5 (29th)||184.7 (2nd)|
|Takeaways||34 (T-2nd)||18 (21st)|
|Giveaways||10 (1st)||12 (T-2nd)|
|TO Diff.||24 (1st)||6 (T-11th)|
This is the marquee matchup of the game, pitting the #1 scoring offense against the #1 scoring defense. What makes San Francisco’s dominance so impressive is the relatively low number of turnovers they force (21st in the NFL with 18). They employ a deep group of fast, smart, and physical players to swarm to the ball, closing running lanes quickly and allowing few yards after a catch. It’s a suffocating scheme, and the Patriots will have to work for every yard they get.
In the front seven, the first player to watch is defensive lineman Aldon Smith. The Patriots did a decent job containing Houston’s JJ Watt, but while Watt is the better all around player, Smith might be the better pure pass rusher. His 19.5 sacks has him on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record. They also boast a pair of All-Pro caliber inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, who are both on pace for over 120 tackles. Not only does this make running the ball more difficult, but both of these players have decent coverage skills, which will hinder Tom Brady’s ability to use the short middle in the passing game.
The Patriots defense showed marked improvement in their rout of the Texans, and all signs would indicate an easier matchup this week. The biggest strength of the 49ers offense is their running game, led by Frank Gore, who has topped 1,000 yards for the sixth time in his last seven seasons. Gore is a tough, downhill runner, which may actually play into the strength of the Patriots’ run defense. Typically it’s the shiftier backs that give the Pats trouble, so look for San Francisco to try to get 2nd year RB Kendall Hunter – a more third-down-style back – a few extra touches this week.
The big question mark will be at quarterback, where head coach Jim Harbaugh has all but permanently made the switch to Colin Kaepernick. While Kaepernick has more upside than early season starter Alex Smith, his game plays into the Patriots’ hands a bit more. New England has typically done a good job containing mobile option quarterbacks in the past. Also, Kaepernick is more prone to turning the ball over due to his youth and play style.
One thing Kaepernick does have going for him is a wealth of receiving options. Randy Moss – making his return to Foxboro – may not have the elite skills he once did, but ignoring him is never an option and these are the types of games he typically comes ready to play. Michael Crabtree is an excellent outside possession receiver, though his targets have gone down since Alex Smith was benched, and Patriots fans already know what Mario Manningham can do after last year’s Super Bowl. The player who should scare New England fans the most however, is TE Vernon Davis, who possesses the combination of speed and size that usually causes matchup problems for the Pats linebackers.
– As always at Gillette in December, weather will be a key thing to watch. Early reports show rain and have the temperature above freezing, but not by much. If the temp swings a few degrees south, the Patriots would have the clear advantage in the snow against a warm-weather west coast team.
– Both teams are dealing with a disadvantage. The Patriots have one less day to prepare for this game after Monday Night Football, and the 49ers have to make the 3,000 mile trip to the east coast, which is always difficult for the team from the west.
– All three of the Patriots’ top cornerbacks got dinged up against the Texans. While signs point to all three playing and being fine, the Patriots secondary lacks the depth to cover for too much hobbling.
I picked against the Patriots last week, and I’m happily eating crow now. I won’t make the same mistake two weeks in a row. The 49ers defense presents some huge challenges, but Tom Brady has been seen preparing for this game since his extra days off after Thanksgiving. And if the Pats could hold the #2 ranked Houston offense to 7 points (Not including the garbage-time touchdown after Ryan Mallett’s interception), I don’t see how San Francisco gets more than 17 in this one.
Patriots 27, 49ers 17