Dec 172012
 

Frank GoreThe San Francisco 49ers cruised out to a 31-3 lead against the New England Patriots, then saw the lead disappear as Tom Brady led the Patriots in a frantic comeback before Michael Crabtree’s touchdown put the 49ers ahead for good in a 41-34 win on Sunday night. With the victory, the 49ers clinched a spot in the NFC playoffs.

The game did not go according to any pre-game script, and was an ugly affair early as both teams struggled to hang on to the ball in a steady rain at Gillette Stadium. New England’s opening drive set the tone for a strange evening as the team’s three and out was made more interesting by a Stevan Ridley fumble that never was. Ridley was clearly down on the play, but the officials ruled it a turnover before reversing it after booth review. But it was an omen of things to come, particularly for the first half.

After a Patriots’ punt, Colin Kaepernick needed only six plays to connect with Randy Moss on a 24 yard touchdown pass to put the 49ers up 7-0. On the next series Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 23 yard gain on the first play, but then went three and out. Punter Zoltan Mesko then pinned the 49ers at their own 8 and the Patriots’ defense forced a three and out of their own when Kaepernick could not handle a snap from center on third down to force a San Francisco punt. But Andy Lee’s booming 56 yard kick, complemented by a holding penalty, set the Patriots back to their own 20 and wiped out their field position advantage.

On the next play Brady tried to force a deep pass to Wes Welker and Carlos Rogers came away with an easy interception as he out-positioned the receiver and then returned the ball to the Patriots’ 5 yard line. But the 49ers would waste the opportunity when Delanie Walker dropped a short pass and Aqib Talib recovered  to thwart the threat. Two Stevan Ridley runs gave the Patriots a 3rd and 1, but Brady’s pass to Aaron Hernandez could not be handled and the Patriots were again forced to punt. Two plays later Kaepernick fumbled again, but the ball was recovered by Frank Gore. San Francisco was able to move the ball to the Patriots’ 21 yard line, but David Akers missed a 39 yard field goal attempt to the left, squandering another 49ers opportunity. Three plays from scrimmage later, the Patriots were facing third and long when disaster struck again. Shane Vereen caught the ball on a screen from Brady and as he was fighting for room to run had the ball jarred loosed by NaVorro Bowman, which was recovered by Chris Culliver at the New England 34.

The New England turnover however, would simply turn into another wasted opportunity, as four plays later the 49ers faced a 4th and 1, as Kaepernick mishandled another snap and the 49ers turned the ball over on downs. This sparked New England, as the offense finally seemed to find a rhythm in an effective 16 play dink and dunk drive that was stopped on a Ray McDonald sack of Tom Brady that forced the Patriots to settle for a 32 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, cutting the lead to 7-3. But the new-found confidence wouldn’t last long. A pass interference call on Talib netted the 49ers 35 yards, and then three plays later Kaepernick hit Walker for a 34 yard touchdown, increasing the lead to 14-3.

After the 49ers forced a three and out on the next Patriots’ drive, Mesko’s punt appeared to brush the front of the ankle of Ted Ginn, and the ball was recovered by Marquice Cole of the Patriots. But the ruling on the field was that the ball never touched Ginn. Bill Belichick challenged the call, but it was upheld and the 49ers maintained control of the ball. It took ten minutes to sort out the situation since each one of Ed Hochuli’s explanations seemed worse than the last, and both benches were upset as Patriots’ fans led Hochuli know what they thought of the call. The 49ers then used 15 plays and the rest of the first half to march to the Patriots’s 2 yard line, where they were forced to settle for a field goal and a 17-3 halftime lead.

The 49ers then took the second half kickoff and were driving into Patriots’ territory before Devin McCourty picked off a Kaepernick pass in the end zone to end the San Francisco drive. After a 29 yard pass to Brandon Lloyd opened the next drive, the Patriots again found a way to implode, as four plays later Ridley put the ball on the ground and Dashon Goldson ran the ball back 66 yards to set the 49ers up with a first and goal. Kaepernick then lost another snap, but Frank Gore picked up the loose ball and ran it in to the end zone, extending the lead to 24-3. Three  plays later Brady threw a short pass to Hernandez, who was unable to put the ball away, and the ball was picked out of the air by Aldon Smith. On the very next play, Kaepernick his Michael Crabtree for a 27 yard touchdown, and the rout seemed to be on. By this point, the Burn Notice marathon on CLOO was starting to look like an attractive alternative, particularly after Ghost Rat’s pen went flying across the room and the Rat’s Widow was growing alarmed.

Brandon LloydBut the Patriots weren’t quite done yet. Seeming to ignore the score, the Patriots marched 13 plays down the field in methodical form, first having a touchdown nullified by a penalty before Danny Woodhead started to take over the game, first with a 15 yard run and then a 6 yard touchdown run to give the Patriots their first touchdown of the night. Rob Ninkovich almost single-handedly shut down the next 49ers offensive series, forcing a punt. The patriots then drove 86 yards on 9 plays with Brady taking the ball the final yard to cut the lead to 31-17, bringing the soaked crowd at Gillette very much back into the game.

After a 49ers’ three and out, Brady went back to work, throwing six straight passes and connecting with Aaron Hernandez for a five yard touchdown reception, and suddenly it was a game again at 31-24. The touchdown pass marked Brady’s 46th straight game with at least one touchdown pass, and his 4th 30-touchdown pass season. On 2nd and 9 from their own 26, Ninkovich sacked Kaepernick for a huge 13 yard loss, and the 49ers were again forced to punt. They pinned the Patriots back at their own 8 yard line,  but Brady hit Lloyd for 10 yards and then a big 53 yard gain down the sideline to get deep into San Francisco territory. Four plays later Woodhead took the ball in for the score, and the Patriots had fought back to tie the game 31-31.

However, the joy in Foxboro would be short lived. On the ensuing kickoff return, LaMichael James took the ball 62 yards, setting the 49ers up at the Patriots’ 38 yard line. On the next play, Kaepernicjk hit Michael Crabtree, who got away from Kyle Arrington to take the ball in for a score and a 38-31 lead. Two 49ers sacks of Brady stifled the next New England, and the Patriots were forced to punt, nearly catching a break when Ted Ginn muffed the catch but recovered his own fumble. The 49ers went three and out and the Patriots could  do little deep in their own end, choosing to go for it on 4th and 1. Woodhead ran and 8 yard route and was overthrown by Brady, setting the 49ers up to add a field goal that increased the lead to ten. The Patriots then used an 11 play drive to add a field goal of their own and close the gap to 41-34, but were unable to recover the onside kick, sealing the San Francisco win.

When the Patriots ran
Danny Woodhead ran for 61 yards and two scores on 12 carries as the Patriots ran for 95 yards and three touchdowns on the night, but Stevan Ridley’s fumble in the third quarter was a killer as it set up a 49er touchdown. Woodhead was able to find running room, but Ridley was largely a liability on this night. The running game was largely shelved once the Patriots fell into a deep hole. The 49ers defensive front came up big against the run throughout the evening. Advantage: 49ers

When the Patriots passed
Tom Brady threw a career high 65 passes for 443 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the loss. Brady was out of rhythm for much of the first half and the beginning of the third quarter, but then hit his stride and torched the San Francisco secondary. The pass protection was good for most of the night, though Brady was sacked three times and subject to sporadic pressure throughout the game. Brandon Lloyd was the surprise star of the evening, catching 10 passes for 190 yards as he seemed to have no problem working against Tarrell Brown while making acrobatic catches along the sidelines. Aaron Hernandez also caught ten passes, and Woodhead and Welker each caught five as the Patriots took advantage of mismatches in the secondary throughout the second half to get the Patriots back into the game. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers ran
Frank Gore failed to reach the 100 yard mark, which I believed was going to be a key stat on the night, but the 49ers had no problems running the ball. Gore ran for 83 yards, and Goldson added 31 on a fake punt, as the 49ers ran for 180 yards on the night. Double teams on Vince Wilfork helped the 49ers open up some holes in the middle of the field, and timely runs by James and Kaepernick aided scoring drives. Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes had busy nights, but 49ers play design seemed to keep the Patriots guessing as the 49ers built a huge 28 point lead. The 49ers had difficulty running to close out the game, but overall had the advantage on this night. Advantage: 49ers

Michael CrabtreeWhen the 49ers passed
Colin Kaepernick only threw for 216 yards on 14/25 passing, but it was his effective reads and manipulation of the Patriots’ secondary that allowed him to throw for four touchdown passes on the night. Michael Crabtree had a big night with seven catches for 107 yards and two scores, including the touchdown that decided the game. Moss and Walker each added touchdown catches as the patriots’ secondary seemed to bite on every piece of deception that Kaepernick would bait them into. His biggest mistake on the night was the pick by McCourty, but he showed excellent poise and maturity througfhout the game, not even losing confidence despite numerous botched snaps. Advantage: 49ers

Special Teams
Ted Ginn nearly cost the 49ers twice on punt returns. Both Ghost and Mesko had solid nights, as did Andy Lee, while David Akers connected on two field goals after missing an easy one. But it was LaMichael James’ kickoff return that really turned out to be a key play in the game, and the deciding play in this category. Advantage: 49ers

Intangibles
New England turned the ball over four times on the night, a startling number for a team that had only turned the ball over ten times in thirteen previous games, while the 49ers turned over the ball twice despite fumbling the ball six times. Points off turnovers were a huge factor, with the 49ers winning that battle 21-0. The 49ers won despite only a 25% success rate in the red zone, versus 80% by New England. The Niners committed six penalties, while the Patriots were flagged eight times. Advantage: 49ers

Key Moment: LaMichael James’ 62 yard kickoff return with 6:43 left in the game

Game Ball: Michael Crabtree with 7 receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns

Quote of the Game: “We just spotted them 28 points. We fought hard, but you can’t play poorly against a good team and expect to win. We can’t miss plays that we have opportunities with.” (Tom Brady)

Dec 142012
 

49ers - PatriotsWeek 15 features a possible foreshadowing of the Super Bowl when the San Francisco 49ers roll into Foxboro to square off against the New England Patriots on Sunday night. The Patriots are 10-3, riding a seven game winning streak including a 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans on Monday night, while the 49ers are 9-3-1, and coming off a win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday.

This game will not be a repeat of the blowout win over the Texans, but the match-ups are not dissimilar. New England features a balanced offense capable of running and passing effectively, against a San Francisco defense that is stout against both the run and the pass, but susceptible to throws to tight ends. On the other side, San Francisco has the second rated rushing offense but is going against a tough run defense anchored by Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.  The 49ers passing attack is fairly weak, ranking 26th in the league, but Colin Kapernick is a mobile and unpredictable quarterback who can make plays with his legs as easily as he can with his arm. We won’t be seeing another 42-14 blowout, but the match-ups do seem to favor a New England win in what is likely to be a hard fought contest. The 49ers defense does not have the weaknesses that the Patriots are used to exploiting, but the big question is whether or not Colin Kaepernick can score the points that will be needed to win this game.

Here’s how the contest will break down.

When the Patriots run
This is a tough match-up for the Patriots, despite having a solid rushing attack this season. The Niners excel at stopping the run, and generally can do it with five defenders. Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, and Justin Smith create a formidable wall, and are supplemented by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside, so Stevan Ridley is going to find it difficult to find running room in the middle. But his bruising style is similar to those backs who have given the 49ers trouble this year, so expect the Patriots to test the middle early in the game. This seems like a game where the Patriots might rely more on Shane Vereen or Brandon Bolden to find running room around the edges, but more than likely the biggest damage that Patriots’ backs will be doing is catching balls out of the backfield. Look for the Patriots to be below their season average of 140 yards, probably somewhere around 100. They do need to establish a running threat early in order to be able to sell play actions, but some of their better play actions against the Texans were on runs that appeared to be going outside, which could help sell the play action even without an effective ground game this Sunday. Advantage: 49ers

When the Patriots pass
New England is used to going up against defenses that are statistically excellent and then putting up both yards and points against them, and they have been doing so all season, even in their losses. The 49ers have perhaps the best pass rusher in the game in Aldon Smith, plus Justin Smith is a powerful bull rusher, but they will have to apply consistent pressure with only three or four rushers in order to avoid having Brady carve up the field the way he did against the Texans. The Patriots are known for making pass rushers disappear through flawlessly executed technique, so more than likely the 49ers will need to send more rushers to be able to get to Brady. This opens up the 49er defense to some mismatches.

One of those mismatches is Danny Woodhead, who will likely be active in the short passing and screen game. Woodhead will likely be covered by Patrick Willis (or Bowman) and should find success getting five to ten yards a connection. Aaron Hernandez will find himself getting attention from Donte Whitner, who is undoubtedly the weak link in the 49ers’ secondary. Whitner is the strong safety in the defensive formation, which is exactly where the Patriots like to throw the most. Look for Hernandez to be a frequent target. Another match-up where the Patriots seem to have an edge is Wes Welker against Carlos Rodgers. Rodgers struggles against speedy slot receivers, and Welker is among the league’s best. A steady rotation of passes to Hernandez, Welker, and Woodhead could give the 49ers fits in pass coverage. If Tarrell Brown is moved over to play Welker, then look for Brandon Lloyd to get some chances. Otherwise, Lloyd figures to have a quiet night.

At the end of the day, the 49ers are a solid pass defense, but the Patriots’ receivers are simply too talented to keep in check, particularly with Tom Brady’s ability to read and respond instantly to coverages. Look for Brady to throw in the neighborhood of 250 yards and two scores. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers run
The 49ers have the second best rushing attack, averaging 161.5 ypg, but are going up against a run defense that ranks eighth, yielding only 100.8 ypg. Moreover, the Patriots have a knack for taking away the opposing team’s greatest offensive threat, which in this case is Frank Gore. Gore has rushed for 1,035 yards this season along with seven touchdowns, and is the key to the 49ers’ attack. Vince Wilfork has been a terror inside over the past month and is playing some of the best football of his career. Look for Wilfork to routinely line up over the weakside guard in this contest. Kyle Love is becoming a tough inside defender and will play opposite Wilfork. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones both excel at setting the edge and forcing the action back inside, so Gore is going to have to work hard for every yard he gets. Jerod Mayo is a solid run stuffer, as is Brandon Spikes, who is fighting off an ankle injury. Look also for the Patriots to sneak a safety into the box, confident in their ability to cover the 49ers’ receivers in man to man. Similar to the Patriots, look for San Francisco to only run for about 100-110 yards in this contest. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers pass
Jim Harbaugh has opted for Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith, and I still hold that Harbaugh is intentionally choosing long-term gain over short-term pain. In this game, the Patriots will focus on limiting the 49ers running game and seek to keep Kaepernick in the pocket, forcing him to beat the Patriots with his arm, something he has not yet been asked to do as a starting quarterback. Where Mayo blitzed frequently last week against the Texans, this week he will be assigned the “spy” role for both Gore and Kaepernick. Trevor Scott and Dont’a Hightower will be called upon to assist Ninkowich and Jones in setting the edge and keeping Kaepernick in the middle of the field.

Michael Crabtree has 66 receptions this season and will likely be drawing coverage from Aqib Talib (who is day to day) and Randy Moss may have to step up if Mario Manningham can’t go, but either would draw the coverage of Alfonzo Dennard, who is providing to be a steal from the 2012 draft. The tougher match-ups for the Patriots are in the flat, where Vernon Davis has the potential to do some damage, but has yet to emerge as a key Kaepernick target. Look for him to be much more active Sunday night. Delanie Walker might also see some targets over the middle. The 49ers don’t have much depth in their receiving group, and Frank Gore has only 23 catches this season, so the 49ers are not an overly scary passing threat against a Patriots’ secondary that has improved dramatically during their seven game winning streak. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kick returner who is capable of an occasional big play. Ted Ginn hasn’t done much in the way of kickoff returns this season. Wes Weler is both consistent and dangerous in the punt return game, while Ginn is again unremarkable but does get a respectable 10 yards per return. Stephen Gostkowski is a solid kicker who has had some occasional struggles this year, while David Akers has been struggling through injury and is not his usual self. Andy Lee is a solid punter and has the edge over Zoltan Mesko. Advantage: Even

Intangibles
The Patriots continue to dominate the turnover battle, with a +24 based on 34 takeaways and only 10 giveaways. The 49ers are roughly in the middle of the pack at +6 with 18 takeaways and 12 giveaways. Both teams protect the ball, but the Patriots are much better at forcing turnovers. Jim Harbaugh is a talented coach in his second year with the 49ers, but has not yet prove himself on the big stage. Bill Belichick excels at devising game plans that take away the opponent’s strengths, and I rather suspect that the Patriots will be focusing on how to control both lines of scrimmage. San Francisco has committed 94 (7.23 pg) penalties this season, compared to the Patriots’ 79 (6.08 pg). Advantage: Patriots

San Francisco wins if… they get consistent pressure on Brady with only four rushers, Frank Gore rushes for 100 yards, Colin Kaepernick protects the ball.

New England wins if… they keep Frank Gore under 100 yards rushing, create and take advantage of passing mismatches on offense, and keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket.

Prediction
This is going to be a much closer game than Monday night, and the 49ers offer a much tougher defense than the Texans. This game will go down to the wire and will in all likelihood be within one score. What pushes me over the edge on this game is that I can see where the Patriots are going to get their points, as there are offensive mismatches to take advantage of. I am also fairly confident in the ability of the Patriots to make it a frustrating night for Frank Gore, and the 49ers don’t have the type of offense to be able to win a game with the Patriots through the air. I see Kaepernick creating a couple of big plays with his legs but having a frustrating night in the air, and I believe the 49ers are going to have a hard time producing points. Look for a bruising battle with the Patriots eventually squeezing out a win. Projected score: Patriots 24 49ers 20.