FOXBOROUGH – Huge AFC-NFC showdown tonight at Gillette Stadium between the 49ers and Patriots, a matchup that could be a Super Bowl XLVII preview. Excited for this one. Should be a real slobber knocker between two tough teams.
The Patriots will win their eighth-straight game and move closer to a first-round bye in the playoffs if they hit on these five keys:
- Stop the run: The 49ers will give standout running back Frank Gore all the touches he can handle to make sure quarterback Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have to beat the Patriots by himself. If the Patriots can limit the run, that puts Kaepernick in tough down-and-distance situations on second and third downs, which will make it easier to defend. To stop the run, the Patriots must be very disciplined against the 49ers’ pistol formations where Kaepernick is in a shorter shotgun and surrounded by one, two and sometimes three (full house) offensive weapons. From that they will run the read option. It’s a lot to prepare for on a short week, but the Patriots have some practice from defeating the Tim Tebow-led Broncos twice last season.
- Make Kaepernick beat you from the pocket: Expect the Patriots to be very careful with the pressure they apply to Kaepernick because he’s a dynamic athlete that can take off from the pocket and score 50-yard touchdowns, which he did last week against the Dolphins. He’s also at his best throwing the ball as plays break down.
- It’s vitally important for the Patriots make Kaepernick beat them by being a pocket passer. It’s not his strength. He’s still growing in the position, so his reads and delivery are slow. His reads are also basic, so the Patriots should be able to get him off his first option, which make him even more indecisive and prone to turnovers, which the Patriots get a league-leading rate (plus 24).
- Handle the stunts: The Patriots are going to have a lot to handle on the offensive line between outside linebackers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, and ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. The Smith duo is perhaps the best stunting tandem in the league. They will work together by having Justin Smith take offensive linemen outside, while Aldon Smith crosses behind and rushes from the inside. The Patriots have had a lot of trouble (Giants in both Super Bowls) dealing with stunting lines. The communication between the tackles and guards is going to have to be perfect. And center Ryan Wendell is going to have the right decision on where and when to help if he’s uncovered.
- Don’t give up on the run: Yes, the 49ers are very good against the run but you can run against them if you stick with it. Expect the Patriots spread the 49ers out a bit to start with to get a look at their coverages and how they plan to defend Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots will likely return to the run in short order and it’s important for them to have some success. It will give Tom Brady and the offense a chance to run playaction passes. They are probably now the best at it in the league, and the 49ers’ safeties run downhill so quickly that some plays should be there. If the Patriots make any big plays in the pass game, it will likely be off playaction.
- Account for the backs, get in Crabtree’s head: The Patriots had all sorts of problems covering the running backs underneath against the Texans, it’s just Matt Schaub never took advantage of it. Expect the 49ers to quickly go to the checkdowns to Gore and James. Both are very good with the ball in their hands after the catch. It’s actually a big mismatch against the Patriots’ linebackers, so they’re going to need to be careful. And with the weather the way it is, the one person I’ll be watching is 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. He has become the go-to guy for Kaepernick and with Mario Manningham out, he’s the one real dependable receiver for the 49ers. He’s from Dallas and went to Texas Tech … I’m just wondering how many of these bad weather games he’s played in. If he’s affected by the elements, I have a tough time seeing the 49ers win.
This should be a really good game. These are two well-rounded teams. But I think Tom Brady’s experience in bad-weather games, the fact that the 49ers had to travel all the way East, and that the Patriots are at home in December lead to a New England victory in a tight affair.
Patriots 24, 49ers 20
For more on the game, checkout my column for NBCSports.com