1. Mr. Smiths come to Foxborough – While the Patriots don’t have to worry about dealing with Smith, New England very much has to be concerned with stopping Smith and Smith. Let’s explain. Alex Smith is no longer the quarterback in San Francisco despite having a passer rating that’s the third best in the NFL this year, just a tenth of a point behind
2. Physical and mental preparation – This could be a tough spot for the Patriots – both mentally and physically. Mentally New England had a short week to prepare for a team it doesn’t face very often, and that team changed starting quarterbacks to a young, raw talent just a month ago. That’s a lot for the defense, in particular, to have to deal with. Physically the Patriots are coming off a tough battle on Monday night that though a blowout, still took a physical toll on the New England team. Guys like
3. Ones vs. Ones – If it weren’t for two overtime battles with the division rival Rams – a tie and a loss – the 49ers would also be on a seven-game winning streak. They are one of the top teams in the NFC facing arguably the top team in the AFC. New England has the best offense in football in terms of points. San Francisco has the best defense in football in terms of points. The Patriots have the best third-down offense. The 49ers have the No. 2 third-down defense. New England dispatched a Houston team last week that was supposed to have the best third-down defense in the game by converting 50-percent of its chances on the ever-important down. If it can do that again this week, it will go a long way toward victory. But while Houston had the No. 19 pass defense in terms of yards, San Francisco’s is No. 2. That could make a big difference third down. The 49ers also have the pass rush and key guys in the middle of the field like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson to give the Patriots pass attack problems. Carlos Rogers is an experienced corner looking to match up with
4. Weather and kickers – It looks like the weather is going to be a little sloppy Sunday night. Brady asked for some cold and some precipitation and it looks like he’s going to get a mid-30s game with some rain and maybe even a little snow. That’s a challenge for the 49ers and their young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. It’s probably not that big a deal for Brady who might just be the best bad-weather passer in the history of the game. But it will also be a challenge for a couple kickers who are having less than stellar seasons.
5. Run defense, inside out – The running game will be interesting to watch Sunday night for both teams, and in a variety of ways. Like the Texans, the 49ers will come in wanting to run the ball. Gore is the focal point of the offense and having yet another good season. San Francisco will also mix in some option type plays with Kaepernick, and his 50-yard runs in each of the last two games show just how dangerous he can be with the ball in his hands. So the challenge is there for the Patriots to not only stop Gore’s traditional runs but also the pressure that Kaepernick can put on with designed runs or scrambles. From a Patriots perspective it’s important to get some contributions out of the running game to stay balanced. Being too one-dimensional against the 49ers defense could be a recipe for disaster. Ridley has had a bit of trouble getting things going early on over the last couple weeks, including just 22 yards on eight carries against Houston in the first half. He doesn’t have to light up the 49ers – and maybe some of the running contributions can come from guys like
6. Confidence – The Patriots clearly won the battle of confidence, swagger and motivation last week as the Texans weren’t ready for the spotlight on Monday Night Football and seemingly wilted in the moment while wearing their letter jackets. The 49ers are only slightly more proven in bigger games, and that’s not the case for Kaepernick. Aldon Smith said this week, as he should, that his team’s defense can stop the Patriots and that New England wasn’t the first team they’d played with a good offense. What else should he say?
“Look, they have a good defense and I’m sure they expect to play well,” Belichick said of any pregame chatter. “We have a good team [and] we expect to play well. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t put any points on the board or give you any blocks, tackles or yards or anything else. It will come down to how the teams perform on Sunday night. That’s really what it’s all about. The rest is just good for you [media] to work with.”
Harbaugh is one of the more emotional, energetic, confident coaches in the game and it’s safe to expect his team to show up displaying their leader’s style. I find it hard to believe the 49ers will be so seemingly ill prepared for the moment, as the Texans were. I also wonder if the Patriots can conjure up the same emotional defiance they seemingly played with last Monday against a team that was supposed the best in the AFC. Emotion will play a big part in this one, as it does in so many games. It’s not as important as execution, but it’s close.
I was really excited for what I thought could be a very fun, competitive football game last Monday night. That contest never developed as the Texans were not ready for primetime and things got out of control early. I’m even more intrigued by this matchup of a great offense and a great defense. This is more of a finesse team against an old-school physical squad. It’s offense vs. defense. Overall, I think this is the Patriots toughest test of the season – literally. San Francisco is as good and as physical on defense as any team New England has faced in quite a while. I think a big issue could be the health of what’s seemingly a banged up Patriots offensive line. In the end I think the spot is more than the Patriots can overcome right now. I think San Francisco will find enough success on the ground to stay balanced and keep from having to put everything on Kaepernick. Brady has struggled in the face of pressure and physical play at times – see the Cardinals in Week 2 – and I think that will be the case Sunday night. I think the New England offense could be knocked off its stride a bit coming off a big win on a short week. While I don’t think a loss in this one says anything about the Patriots chances moving forward, I think the 49ers come to Foxborough and pull the upset with a 21-18 San Francisco win. New England will obviously be in it to the end, but just won’t be able to get enough points on the board against an impressive defense.