Week 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
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
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.
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.