Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
The Pats host the 49ers and their fast, physical, suffocating defense on Sunday Night Football. The game has all the makings of a possible Super Bowl preview.
One really big game down, one really big game to go.
That second big game is already upon us. Monday Night Football always means a short week to prepare for the next opponent and so here are the Pats, just a couple of days away from hosting the best the NFC has to offer when the San Francisco 49ers invade Gillette Stadium on Sunday night.
It would be getting ahead of ourselves to call this a possible Super Bowl match up but that's OK because this game is exactly that. The Niners were a couple of fumbled punts and an overtime away from meeting the Pats in Indianapolis last season and this year, the two teams are on a potential collision course once again.
One team has the best offense in the NFL. The other has the best defense. Whether those facts will have any profound effect on the outcome of the game remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that these are two terrific, complete teams both of which are as legit as it gets when it comes to this year's potential Lombardi Trophy winner.
The Niners were 13-3 last year and are 9-3-1 this year. Given that they were 18-22 over parts of the previous three seasons with Mike Singletary coaching almost the exact same roster, it's safe to assume that second-year coach Jim Harbaugh has had a major impact on how this team goes about its business.
With the exception of their top two draft choices in 2011, linebacker Aldon Smith and QB Colin Kaepernick, the Niners looked mostly the same and were a below .500 team before Harbaugh arrived from the college ranks. When considering the top coaches in the league, it's impossible to overlook him as one of the very best.
Sunday night marks an enormous test for him and his team. Last season's trip to the NFC Championship game was very impressive, but the Niners lost that game despite playing at home. By no means is this game against the Pats as big as that one was. But if the Niners are to win in Foxborough against a team that has won seven in a row, won 13 straight in December, is 21-0 in games played in the second half of the season since 2009 and has not lost at home in December in 10 years, it would be a major accomplishment that would further enhance Harbaugh's place as one of the best in the business in a big way.
So with that, let's look at some of the most compelling match ups this terrific, late-season battle has to offer.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
With this being perhaps the most critical match up of the game, why not start here? The Pats' pass offense is as good as any in the league and it generates a great deal of their league leading yardage and points per game numbers. On the other hand, the Niners are second in the league against the pass, first in points allowed per game and not only are they the best pass rushing team in the league, they have a tremendous linebacking corps and arguably the best safety tandem in the NFL.
It starts for them up front, where Smith, whose 19.5 sacks lead the league and are just three shy of the single-season record, is joined by veteran defensive lineman Justin Smith (no relation) to terrorize opposing QBs. Justin Smith's sack totals are down this year but he still causes havoc and, when he and Aldon are lined up on the same side, is great at clearing space for his his partner in pass pressure. If the Pats can handle or at least slow down that tandem, next they will have to deal with the other three regular 49er backers.
In Ahmad Brooks (5.5 sacks), Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the Niners have three guys, particularly Willis and Bowman, who pretty much never come off the field. They can all hit like crazy and are super fast for their size. Willis and Bowman can also cover like most coaches dream their linebackers can. With Rob Gronkowski still out, it will be imperative for the Pats to move Aaron Hernandez around in attempts to get him free. This game won't allow the Pats to get away with finding Hernandez matched up with the likes of Houston's Bradie James or Miami's Kevin Burnett. In one-on-one situations, both Bowman and Willis will give Hernandez more than he's used to seeing out of opposing backers.
Then there are the safeties, Donte Whitner, who the Pats know from his days in Buffalo, and Dashon Goldson, who the Pats courted in free agency prior to the 2011 season. These are two of the hardest hitting defensive backs in the league and neither of them are bad in coverage either. Although the Pats would surely like to get Hernandez singled up on either one of these two as opposed to Willis or Bowman, both Whitner and Goldson are capable of covering a lot of space and landing a potential knockout type hit.
The key to the Pats passing game is getting Tom Brady enough time to dissect opposing defenses. All of the complex formations and different looks in the world aren't going to mean anything if Logan Mankins, Nate Solder and the guys up front can't handle the Smiths and their relentless pressure. Should Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd manage to get singled up on either of the Niners' corners (Carlos Rogers, a borderline star, and Tarell Brown, pretty good), they will likely be able to do some damage as long as Brady has the time to find them. Brady has 19 TDs and just one pick during the seven game winning streak, with only the Dolphins able to even approach slowing him down. These 49ers may have the antidote to all of his success.
When the 49ers pass the ball.
Here's another team that wants to run to set up play action and take potential shots downfield. Only unlike Houston, the Niners likely won't be so stupid that they keep on doing the same thing over and over again even if it's not working well after the game has become a blowout.
The Niners are second in the league in rushing yards per game (161.5) and per attempt (5.3) as a team and veteran running back Frank Gore is having another excellent season (1,035 yards at just under five yards a pop). He will be a huge focal point of the Pats' defensive game planning. But even though Kaepernick has started just four games and isn't as experienced as the QB he replaced, former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, he's still been able to put up some lofty numbers in the passing game.
Kaepernick has completed 67.4 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,073 yards at 8.3 yards per attempt with a 97.5 passer rating. Those are some nice stats. Even more impressive, despite Kaepernick posting 88 fewer pass attempts than Smith, the Niners have managed one more pass play of 30 or more yards with the second year man out of Nevada-Reno under center.
The Niners feature several big names among their receiving corps, starting with former first rounder Michael Crabtree, who is having his best season yet and is the clear No. 1 guy. Tight end Vernon Davis is having a down year but even in the leanest of seasons out in San Francisco, he was still putting up big numbers and is someone who must be accounted for, especially given the Pats' problems covering backs and tight ends this season.
And of course, there's our old friend Randy Moss, whose career went in the toilet when the Pats traded him to Minnesota following Week 4 of the 2010 season but is having a fair comeback year with the Niners. Moss has just 21 catches for 326 yards and two TDs this year. But his playing time spiked significantly last week against Miami with Mario Manningham (yes, Pats' fans - that Mario Manningham) out with an injury. Don't be surprised to see Harbaugh call for Kaepernick to take a couple of shots up top to Randy in this one, especially if the Niners' running game is working to its normal level and they can get him singled up downfield.
As we've seen, the Pats have made enormous strides in their pass defense since the arrival of Aqib Talib (who has been at practice all week despite suffering a hip injury against the Texans) and Devin McCourty's move to safety. They've held their opponents under 20 points for three straight weeks and are not only more sure and steady in coverage over that span but are also featuring a better pass rush. Kaepernick is a running quarterback and at 6'4", 230, he's a load to try to bring down so the Pats will have to worry not only about getting to him but containing him as well. Still, given his relative inexperience and the big improvement of the Pats' D, this feels like a match up that favors New England.
When the Patriots run the ball.
If you regularly read this space you know that there are frequent mentions of Pats' running back Stevan Ridley being the best they've had since Corey Dillon. Well now, there are some numbers to back up that claim.
Ridley's 1,082 yards on the ground is the most for any Pats' back since Dillon in 2004. His 10 rushing TDs comprise half of the team's total of 20, which is first in the league. He averages 4.5 yards per attempt, a superb number. As a team, the Pats average over four yards per attempt and are seventh in the league in rushing yards per game.
All that being said, it's going to be extremely difficult for them to consistently run the ball against this outstanding Niners' defense, which is second in the league in rushing yards allowed per game at 90.8.
Both Willis and Bowman are excellent against the run, a pair of tackling machines. And Whitner and Goldson are no slouches themselves. It's going to be tough for the Pats' O-line to open up much room between the tackles for Ridley, Shane Vereen and Co. and the Niners' linebackers are so fast that getting outside and around the edges won't be easy either.
The Pats have been solid and mostly consistent in keeping their offensive approach balanced throughout the season. It will be important for them to continue to do that this week especially given the Niners' excellence against the pass. Stiil, the Pats don't want to get into a bogged down, plodding style of game. Even though the Dolphins dragged them down into exactly that and they were still able to come out on top, these are not the Dolphins they will be facing come Sunday night.
The 49ers more than likely want the Pats to run the ball and have to be keying on this match up in practice this week. While there are few defenses better equipped to handle the Pats playing fast and employing a lot of no-huddle given their overall team speed, pass rush and coverage ability, you can bet that if they can slow the Pats down, the game will be easier for the Niners to navigate defensively.
Prediction: Patriots 24, 49ers 17
It's hard to argue that right now, at this very moment, these are the two best teams in the league. Atlanta, Houston, the Giants, the Packers and the Broncos may all disagree but when you look at the numbers, the rosters, the coaches and the overall acumen of each team, it doesn't really get any better. Of course, that's what many people thought last week going into Monday Night Football and the Texans then came out and puked on themselves. Houston was not ready for such a match up and while Kaepernick probably isn't either, it feels like there is more behind him that can pick him both on the field and on the sideline than there was with the Texans. Still, it's damn near impossible to pick against the Pats at home in December against anyone. They have scored 472 points this season, 36.3 per game, both the most in the league by far. As great as San Francisco's defense is, can they really hold the Pats much further down than 24? And if they do, is their offense capable of generating more than that on the road in potentially lousy weather? Probably not. This one will feel a lot more like the potential classic we all made Pats/Texans out to be. But the home team will still prevail.