The Patriots ride a seven-game winning streak into what some believe could be this Sunday night's Super Bowl preview matchup against the 49ers. New England has plenty of momentum coming off the blowout of the previously hyped Texans, but San Francisco brings a defense to town that is statistically elite and plays as physical a brand of football as the Patriots have faced in quite some time. Bill Belichick's team took care of business in a big way in the first game of this difficult two-game home stand, and dispatching Jim Harbaugh's squad would only strengthen the belief of many that New England is now not only the best team in the AFC but also the favorite to win the Super Bowl. As was the case last week, no titles will be won or lost on Sunday night, but the winner will come away with an impressive victory and reason for a little late season swagger. As you get ready for another exciting, intriguing primetime battle bide your time by sipping on this Bay Area-brewed 49ers Edition Friday Six-Pack!
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 Tom Brady and RGIII at 104.2. But there are a couple of other Smiths – Aldon and Justin – that are a major problem for the Patriots. Aldon leads the NFL with 19.5 sacks from his outside linebacker spot in the 3-4. A lot of his production, though, comes thanks to the work that Justin does in front of him at end. The duo may be the most dangerous defensive combination in the game, playing off each other's skills to take it to opposing offenses, and quarterbacks. This will be the biggest test yet for Nate Solder, as well as Logan Mankins. The latter returned to action last week and will need to be ready for the many stunts and games that the 49ers front, including both Smiths, throw at an offensive line. Solder has had a good season, but this is a challenge in terms of both matching up physically with the two Smiths as well as playing sound technique and working in concert with the rest of the line. Aldon is San Francisco's sack master, with 33 sacks over the last year-plus as the most productive young pass rusher in the history of the game. The 49ers are 13-0 when the team has three or more sacks in the last two seasons. With Aldon and Justin accounting for 22.5 of San Francisco's 32 sacks this season, beating the 49ers starts with stopping the dynamic Smith duo.
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 Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are all newly banged up. Stevan Ridley took a lot of hits among his 18 carries against Houston. Even Tom Brady was banged around quite a bit less than a week before he and his teammates will have to face what is the most physical team in the NFL. San Francisco likes to bang opponents around on both sides of the ball. Offensively they'll tighten things up, have extra blockers and pound Frank Gore, who's averaging an impressive 4.9 yards a carry. Defensively they'll hit you, hit you some more and then swarm together to hit you one last time. San Francisco does a lot schematically on both sides of the ball that the Patriots have to prepare for, but the biggest challenge for New England is recovering from last week and getting up physically for the team's toughest, most violent test of the season.
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 Wes Welker. They say defense travels. They say defense is suited for bad weather. They say a great defense will beat a great offense. I don't know who they are, but we might find out if they are right on Sunday night!
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. Stephen Gostkowski has tied a career-high with six missed kicks this season. After missing three of four, he's now made his last three. In a game that could very well come down to a key field goal, this would be a nice spot to see the former All-Pro Gostkowski make a big game winner or at least a key kick at some point in bad weather. For San Francisco, veteran David Akers has had a tough year. The veteran Pro Bowler has missed nine kicks. That's not good for a team that doesn't score a ton of points and plays a conservative style. While Akers hit from 63 yards out early in the year, he's missed (or had blocked) five kicks from 43 yards or shorter. So it might be hard for 49ers fans to be completely confident if Akers had a chance at a key game winner in bad weather. History says that weather is usually on the Patriots side, and Sunday night they may get another chance to prove it.
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 Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead in passing looks – but New England needs to get some production on the ground in the first half in this matchup to keep the 49ers somewhat honest. Sure Brady is usually very good at getting rid of the ball quickly, but we've also seen over the years that if an opponent can get pressure on No. 12 with its usual four rushers it can make for a long day for the New England offense. A bit of a running game could combat that. Time for Ridley, who's still flying under the radar a bit nationally, to make a name for himself on national TV with the entire league watching on Sunday night.
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.