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What to watch for as the Patriots host the 49ers

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  December 16, 2012 04:47 PM

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Watch out for the 49ers' Vernon Davis. San Francisco may want to go back to him after three weeks with low production. (Beck Diefenbach / REUTERS)

FOXBOROUGH -- It's cold and ugly outside. Perfect New England weather.

We're going to see a high of 37 degrees by 10 p.m. around the fourth quarter and we'll continue to have small bouts of precipitation, according to Weather.com. Coming to Gillette Stadium, there was definitely some hail in the air.

But outside of tonight's weather forecast, Patriots fans should be prepared for the last heavyweight bout of regular season. The San Francisco 49ers have all kinds of weapons on offense, sport the league's second ranked defense for yards allowed, and feature at least two Smiths worth fretting about. Here are some things to watch as you take in the game, either from the comfort of your own couch or here in the cold with the rest of us. (It's worth it!)

1) The battle of the clock -- The 49ers are going to want to run the ball and the Patriots obviously don't want to let that happen given the implications. Frank Gore is an impressive veteran that is averaging 4.9 yards per carry this season. He's proven to be crafty between the tackles and is small enough at 5-feet, 9-inches to catch defenses off guard. If he gets going, it'll open up the 49ers' play-action and option plays. And what's more, it'll slow the Patriots' fast-paced attack that has been working seamlessly for the past month. Conversely, the Patriots want to get off to a fast start like they did last week against the Houston Texans and put the game in the young Colin Kaepernick's hands. The fast pace would kill any hopes for this 49ers team, so the first quarter will be extremely important.

2) How will the Patriots handle the Smiths? -- Whether it's Justin Smith, who can rush the passer from both the end and tackle positions, or Aldon Smith, who is moved from side to side to create havoc, the 49ers have two extraordinary defensive linemen that will require extra attention. The last time the Patriots faced two outstanding pass rushers like this was in the team's Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals with Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. Justin Smith is regularly double teamed, allowing for players like Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald to rush the passer in one-on-one situations. Aldon Smith has a league-leading 19.5 sacks in his second season. The duty of taking him on regularly will likely fall on left tackle Nate Solder, who has a history with him in college. With the Patriots' zone blocking scheme and penchant for keeping in an extra tight end like Michael Hoomanawanui, both Smiths will likely find themselves doubled up on. We'll see if that is successful tonight.

3) Do the 49ers have the big play in them? -- The Patriots certainly hope not. Kaepernick threw a deep pass to old friend Randy Moss last week against the Miami Dolphins that was dropped. The 35-year old receiver showed he can still get behind a secondary and it's something both safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory are acutely aware of. But beyond Moss, the 49ers often look at tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker as deep threats. Davis has only three catches in the last three games. As one of the best tight ends in the NFL, the 49ers will try to increase his output. As a bonus, the Patriots will have to set the edges to make sure they don't allow Kaepernick to run the option well. They don't want Kaepernick breaking off long runs as he has done in the past two games. He had 50-yard runs against Miami and St. Louis.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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