Patriots Preview - 49ers expedition lands at Gillette
Friday, December 14, 2012
It's the second version of the "Game of the Year" in the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers are surely hoping, however, that this one doesn't turn out like the first one.
The two-week stretch of matching up with the NFL's elite this season culminates Sunday night, when the New England Patriots meet the 49ers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. After whacking the Houston Texans 42-14 last Monday night, you could understand Patriots' fans enthusiasm for another beat down of a potential Super Bowl contender.
The Patriots, however, don't share that enthusiasm.
More likely, the Sunday night game could feature a classic - the NFL's#1 ranked scoring offense against the NFL's #1 ranked scoring defense...which is what the Patriots and 49ers will bring into the match-up. The thing is, each teams' other unit might end up being the biggest reason for victory - or defeat. New England's defense, while improving throughout the latter part of the season, will face a challenge from an SF offense that made a mid-season QB switch...and apparently succeeded with it. 2nd year signal-caller Colin Kaepernick has moved in for Alex Smith, and brings a versatility to the position that is becoming prevalent in the pro game today, with his ability to use his legs as well as a strong arm to move his offense down the field.
On the flip side, the biggest question may be whether or not anyone - much less the 49ers - can slow down a juggernaut of a Patriots' offense. However, with a quick front and linebackers who cover well, San Francisco compares favorably to the New York Giants' defenses that have given the Patriots trouble in the past. Defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks, #1 in NFL) rush the passer as well as anyone, and the Niners will bank on their ability to create trouble for Tom Brady without a lot of extra help...putting pressure on a fragile Pats offensive line. Add to the Smith's presence linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman - who stay on the field for just about every play - and the defense is potentially the best NE will face.
They're not #1 for nothing.
The bigger question might be, however, how a young quarterback like Kaepernick handles the glare of the spotlight in a national game, against a national team like the Patriots...who are very used to playing in "big" games. Houston may have showed some stage fright last Monday...the 49ers must make the 3000-mile trip from familiar surroundings to play at Gillette Sunday. And then face a team used to playing their best football during this time of year.
It looks good on paper, so to speak. Like a potential "Game of the Year," doesn't it?
Protect the Man
It goes without saying, but it needs to be said anyway - protect Tom Brady. With an offensive line that has had its share of injuries and personnel changes this season, it bears watching how they can slow down the rush the 49ers defense can bring. Both Smith's are true threats on every down, and SF feels they can get pressure on the QB without exotic blitz schemes and stunts. Logan Mankins' health could be a key here, and whether or not Nate Solder needs any help slowing down either - or both - of the Smith's.
Rattle Kaepernick's cage
He's been solid, and even spectacular at times thus far. But since taking the reins from Alex Smith at quarterback, has Colin Kaepernick faced the bright lights like he'll see Sunday? More than likely, it won't be the lights that bother him, but a Bill Belichick-led defense that usually has success in showing inexperienced QB's a wrinkle or two they haven't seen before. The Niners do bring the #1 overall rushing game in the league to Foxboro, so limiting Frank Gore is a priority. Former Pats WR Randy Moss also makes a return, and you don't want him proving anything on the field. But showing a young QB a new look or two can create opportunities for the defense - as in mistakes - and that's how close games can become blowouts.
Play with Swagger
This is the time of year contending teams should begin to assert themselves. The Patriots know what this game means - with a win, they take another step closer to a first-round bye and potential home-field advantage through the playoffs, and that has to be the short-term goal. SF is in a similar position as the Pats within the NFC as far as the playoff race goes, so it will be interesting to see how they respond. Sure, there will be numerous suggestions that this game will be a potential "Super Bowl" preview. If you're New England, it's time to play the part of a champion.