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CarMax Keys to the Starting Lineup: Patriots golden opportunity vs. 49ers

New England's loss last Sunday night to the Seahawks at Gillette Stadium came down the wire on an impressive Seattle goal line stand.

But even such a seemingly close loss to a Super Bowl contender breeds questions and criticisms in New England.

So, Bay Area boy Tom Brady will make his first-career start in San Francisco on Sunday for a Patriots (7-2) team looking to avoid a rare losing streak. New England has lost back-to-back games just five times since 2003, notching an impressive 41-6 record following a loss in that span. For his entire career, Brady is 41-10 following a loss.

And though the Patriots will be on the road against an unfamiliar NFC foe as the team tries to get back in the win column, San Francisco certainly has the look of a willing victim. The 49ers (1-8) are on an eight-game losing streak, struggling mightily on both sides of the football.

Clearly, Chip Kelly has not been able to work much magic in his first season at the helm of the once-great franchise, leading an offense that ranks 29th in the NFL balanced out by a defense that's 32nd in the league.

Sure, the loss to the Seahawks brought plenty of critics out of the woodwork questioning the defense and leadership on that side of the ball in New England.

But in Bill Belichick's one-week-at-a-time world the Patriots have a golden opportunity to bounce back in a big way in the Bay Area against a 49ers team that struggles in so many different areas on both sides of the ball.

It was a tough week in New England; it's been a tough season in San Francisco. That's a big difference.

With that in mind, here are a few keys to Sunday's matchup for the Patriots first trip to Levi's Stadium. 

Blount force trauma – The 49ers have the NFL's worst run defense, a unit that could be historically bad when all is said and done this season. San Francisco allows 180.4 yards per game on the ground. For comparison, the Browns 31st-ranked run defense allows 143.7 yards a game. The 49ers inability to stop the run includes three games allowing more than 248 yards, with a season-worst 313 yards against the Bills. Seven of nine 49ers opponents ran the ball at least 31 times, while the unit allows 5.1 yards per attempt on the season. That all sounds like a reason for Josh McDaniels and the Patriots to unleash a healthy dose of LeGarrette Blount, especially on a potentially sloppy, wet surface. Blount is having a career year, having already notched five 20-plus-carry games this season. He has 12 rushing touchdowns, two shy of Curtis Martin's franchise record. The offensive line has been better run blocking than in pass protection. This is a clear opportunity for the Patriots to continue to stay balanced on offense and build on a relatively impressive season for Blount and Co. running the football.

Turnover a new leaf – Foliage season is pretty much over in New England. But the team certainly could look to turnover a new leaf in terms of turnovers against San Francisco. The Patriots have gone two games without a takeaway. The team has just nine on the season, though seven of those came against the Dolphins and Texans in Week 2-3. And two of those came on special teams. For years the Patriots have played a bend-but-don't-break style on defense that was buoyed by successfully forcing turnovers. That's not the case right now. The good news is that the 49ers have turned the ball over 18 times this season, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. Kaepernick has lost two fumbles and thrown two interceptions in his four games since returning to the starting job. The Patriots defense needs to start getting more guys to the football and putting pressure on the opposing offense. It needs to start making plays to force turnovers. This week is as good a week as any to start that process.

Home cooking –Brady and Julian Edelman are two of the most emotional, confident players on the Patriots. They will both likely bring plenty of energy to the field Sunday afternoon in front of friends and family in their home area. That should only add to confidence and emotion that New England brings to this battle after a tough game and a week of being questioned. When former players like Ty Law question the pride of the current Patriots it should create a positive reaction. That said, the expectation is very much for the Patriots to find success early and often in San Francisco. That expectation brings some pressure with it, though Brady, Edelman and the rest should be more than ready to ward that off.

PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 11 game against the San Francisco 49ers.

On the edge – The edge of the Patriots defensive front has been rather underwhelming this season, at times against both the pass and the run. The group has seen some changes in personnel, with Jabaal Sheard apparently having his reps cut and Trey Flowers seeing increased opportunity. The latter has made good use of that with four sacks in the last two weeks. Facing Kaepernick means another week of controlled pass rush for Rob Ninkovich and the rest. But even the veteran defensive end has admitted that's no excuse in terms of a lack of pressure and sacks. Overall the Patriots edge players need to keep Carlos Hyde (assuming he's good to go with the shoulder he's been dealing with for a month) and the 49ers running game from finding room to work. The guys on the edge will also clearly look to keep Kaepernick in the pocket as the 49ers passer is completing just 53-percent of his throws and is far from a consistent force through the air. Kelly's offensive scheme, including zone reads, adds to the challenge for the Patriots edge defenders.

Ins and outs – Chris Hogan will miss his first game to a back injury. Rob Gronkowski is out of action due to the chest ailment that kept him from practice all week. That means Brady will be without two of his big-play targets. But Martellus Bennett is more than ready to step into the role as the top tight end, as he was early in the year. Also a Pro Bowl, versatile pass-catcher, Bennett is coming off his third 100-yard game of the season and his ankle seems healthier since the bye week. New England also may see Dion Lewis make his debut as he works back from PUP and a torn ACL. Though it's not likely Lewis will be the electric playmaker he was early last season in his return from a year off, he does add an element to the New England offense and gives the 49ers another weapon to think about. Regardless, Brady throwing to Bennett, Edelman, Danny Amendola, James White and the rest is more than enough in terms of passing weapons to work past Gronkowski's absence on the road against an average-at-best pass defense.

Prediction – A week ago the Seahawks overcame a theoretical tough spot to pull off the upset over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Despite having to travel on Friday and fly across the country, New England is in a decent spot. The team can work out the kinks against one of the worst teams in football on the road without potentially dealing with an at-times fickle Foxborough crowd. San Francisco's defense doesn't get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, isn't good on third down and stinks against the run. Brady and the Patriots offensive weapons should be able to do what they want from the first whistle assuming they don't make upset-allowing mistakes. New England should get Blount going early, work the play-action game and put up plenty of points against the worst scoring defense in the league. Conversely, the Patriots defense should have the chance for turnovers and faces an offense that lacks any consistency in terms of playmaking. San Francisco hasn't scored more than 23 points since Week 2. The Patriots have scored fewer than 24 points just twice this season. Brady will come out fired up and light up the scoreboard. San Francisco probably won't be able to do much about it and the concerns of Patriots Nation will be quelled with a 34-13 victory for the visitors. All may not be right with the Patriots, but things will look pretty good for the flight back east on Sunday night after a convincing win.

What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!

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