In a matchup of preseason division favorites, the New England Patriotsand San Francisco 49ers' season have not gone as planned. But their meeting on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium gives each team a chance to improve their playoff chances.
The Patriots have dropped two straight games, which put them below .500 in October for the first time in 225 games, ending their NFL-record streak. The first came without Cam Newton against defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City, which was expected. But losing at home to the lowly Broncos was decidedly not part of the plans.
San Francisco, on the other hand, finally played up to their expectations when they dispatched the Rams on "Sunday Night Football," 24-16. A week after getting benched to preserve him from aggravating an ankle injury, Jimmy Garoppolo posted his second game of the season with a QBR above 90.
Despite the NFL expanding the playoffs to seven teams per conference this season, both teams remain on the outside looking in. The Patriots (2-3) are 1.5 games behind the Bills (4-2), while the 49ers (3-3) are 2.5 games behind the Seahawks (5-0) in their respective divisions. And they're ranked 11th and 10th in their respective conferences, so they'll have to leapfrog several other teams.
Still, the season is young, and there's plenty we don't know about both of these beat-up teams. Can the Patriots take the first step back towards winning a 12th straight AFC East title? Or will Garoppolo show up in a big way against his former team?
San Francisco at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 25 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Is Cam Newton fully healthy?
At his best, there are few quarterbacks as talented as Newton. He has elite arm strength and great vision in the pocket. His legs can bail him out of trouble. And once he gets into the red zone, he can single-handedly take it in for a score.
The problem for Newton lately is that he has not been at his best because he's been frequently hurt. The former MVP looked great to open the season, but the Patriots didn't ask him to do too much. He wound up missing one game after testing positive for COVID-19, but he did not look like himself in last week's game against the Broncos — perhaps his shoulder injury that cost him 14 games last year is not completely healed.
Although he did rumble 76 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown, Newton was just 17-for-25 for 157 with no touchdowns and an interception. The Patriots didn't really throw much downfield — his long was 19 yards — and most of the success came from short passes with yards after the catch. Even the four sacks he took were the most since his last game in 2018. New England will need Newton to be healthy and effective to make a playoff run, even if the 49ers may be banged up enough to sneak by this week.
2. How long can the Niners' beat-up defense keep this up?
Entering this season, an argument could have been made that San Francisco had the league's most dominant defense — only New England's secondary could compare when you match the two teams up — but at this point in the season, this unit looks drastically different. The 49ers have been without Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Richard Sherman since Week 1, and injuries continue to mount.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander looks likely to miss a second straight game with a high ankle sprain, while safety Jaquiski Tartt also missed practice this week with a groin injury. Most of these players — save for Bosa, who is out for the year with a torn ACL — should be back by the team's Week 11 bye, but that won't help during a stretch of playing four straight 2019 playoff teams heading into that time off.
Despite the injuries, the 49ers are fifth in the NFL in passing defense (finished first last year). Even more strangely, they've actually improved their rush defense (4.5 ypc down to 4.1). The Patriots don't have the most fearsome ground game outside of Newton — again, whose health is in question — but this could be an opportunity for Damien Harris to show off his legs again. Or prove that that the 49ers are still a dominant unit.
3. Can Deebo Samuel unlock San Francisco's offense?
Jimmy Garoppolo looked great after his benching in part because he had a little more time to recover from his ankle injury. But he also had his full array of weapons on offense. Specifically, Samuel was back after missing the first three games — and being somewhat limited when he did play due to an illness. Fully unlocked, the second-year receiver caught six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown last week against the Rams.
Samuel is dangerous because head coach Kyle Shanahan can use him in so many ways. He can be used on reverses and screens, deep passes, and slants. Because the 49ers built a solid lead in the second half, he wasn't needed very much, but he's a dependable option on third down. And his presence should take pressure off George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, especially when there's a dangerous corner like New England's Stephon Gilmore on the field.
It is worth noting that the 49ers will be without starting running back Raheem Mostert, who also suffered an ankle injury in the win over Los Angeles. But if Shanahan offenses have shown anything over the years, it's that they can seemingly create star running backs out of thin air with their zone-blocking scheme. Mostert wasn't a household name a year ago, and San Francisco should get fairly similar production from Jerick McKinnon, Jeff Wilson Jr., or JaMycal Hasty.
With both teams nursing a lot of key injuries, this should be a low-scoring affair. This has the lowest over/under of the week at 43.5, and I like the under. I'm not quite ready to buy that Jimmy Garoppolo is one of the league's best passers, and playing at 10 a.m. body time is always worth considering. It's hard to imagine the Patriots losing three straight games — which they last did in 2002. This is banking a lot on Cam Newton's health, but give me New England narrowly in this one.