The San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots face off tonight at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC in what could potentially be a preview of Super Bowl XLVII. The 49ers (9-3-1) are trying to hold Seattle off for the top spot in the NFC West, while the Patriots (10-3) could potentially knock Houston from the top of the standings in the AFC. This also is a matchup of one of the league’s top defenses in San Francisco trying to slow down a New England offense that’s been lighting up the scoreboard most of the season.
When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
San Francisco’s offense relies heavily on the run, as the 49ers are second in the NFL in rushing offense at 161.5 yards per game. Running back Frank Gore is the workhorse out of the backfield and he’s already surpassed 1,000 yards for the sixth time in his eight seasons with the team. Gore also leads the way with seven rushing touchdowns, but he’s not alone in finding paydirt as the 49ers have a total of 16 ground scores, tied for the third-most in the league. Second on the team with five rushing touchdowns is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took over the starting job after Alex Smith went down with a concussion and has yet to relinquish it. Kaepernick has made plays with both his legs and his arm, but he’s also not called on to throw the ball a lot in this offense, averaging less than 26 pass attempts over the four games he has started. The 49ers are 26th in passing offense at less than 200 yards through the air per game, but do have a reliable weapon in wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree leads the team in receptions (66), yards (761) and is tied with tight end Vernon Davis in touchdown catches with five. Besides using the ground game to chew up the clock and wear down defenses, the 49ers also pride themselves on taking care of the football. San Francisco has turned it over just 12 times so far.
New England’s defense has given up a lot of yards, especially through the air, but it has done a good job of mitigating the damage on the scoreboard as well as scoring some points of its own. The Patriots rank just 26th in total defense, surrendering more than 376 yards per game, but are 11th in scoring defense, holding opponents to 21.1 points per contest. The strength of this defense has been stopping the run, as the unit ranks eighth in rushing defense (100.8 ypg), but some of this can be attributed to the success teams have throwing the ball against the Patriots, not to mention the fact that often times teams are forced to pass. The Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed (275.5 ypg), but that’s what happens when your offense jumps out to leads early and keep pouring it on. New England’s defense also excels at creating turnovers, a tally that currently stands at 34, including 19 forced fumbles. What’s more, the unit has scored five touchdowns of its own on fumble and interception returns. The Patriots are in the middle of the pack when it comes to sacks (28), but pass rush could be an important aspect to watch in this game as the 49ers have allowed 38 quarterback takedowns, the fifth-most in the league.
When the New England Patriots have the ball:
Simply put, New England’s offense is the most productive and potent attack in the NFL, and is head and shoulders above the rest of the league right now. The Patriots lead the way in both yards (425.7) and points (36.3) per game, and currently are averaging nearly eight more points per contest than the No. 2 team, Denver at 28.8. They are scoring more than 40 points per game during their current seven-game winning streak, including the 42 they hung on Houston, the current top seed in the AFC, last Monday night. While quarterback Tom Brady and company are doing their usual damage through the air, the Patriots also boast the seventh-ranked rushing attack, one that is averaging nearly 140 yards on the ground. Running back Stevan Ridley has established himself as the team’s lead back and already has gained 1,082 yards with 10 rushing touchdowns. In fact, the Patriots lead the league in rushing scores with 20. So couple that ground game with the weapons that Brady has to throw to, including wide receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez, and you get an idea of what is keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night. The Patriots’ offensive line has done a very good job of giving Brady the time to throw (only 20 sacks allowed), and the team has committed a league-low 10 turnovers.
San Francisco’s defense is either first or second when it comes to the four major defensive categories. The 49ers are No. 1 in scoring defense (14.2 ppg) and second in total (275.5 ypg), rushing (90.8 ypg) and passing (184.7 ypg) defense. They have allowed a grand total of 16 offensive touchdowns, with only three of those coming on the ground, the fewest of any team. The unit has collected 32 sacks, which ties them for 10th, but more than half of those have come courtesy of one man, Aldon Smith. Smith leads the league with 19.5 sacks, and the Defensive Player of the Year contender is just three sacks away from tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5. Smith is anything but a one-man wrecking crew, however, as the 49ers’ defense also has standouts in fellow linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and defensive lineman Justin Smith, along with a solid secondary. There’s little question the Patriots’ offense will be this unit’s toughest test yet, and one of the things to watch will be if the 49ers are able to generate any takeaways. The defense has forced 18 turnovers so far, including 10 interceptions, but remember this is an offense that’s only turned it over 10 times on the season.
How’s this for a Week 15 pairing: the league’s best offense against arguably the best defense. The NFL couldn’t have set up a better, more attractive late-season non-conference game than this, right? While I do think San Francisco’s defense will hold its own against New England’s offense, I can’t ignore how impressive the Patriots have looked over the last two months. Last week alone, they made Houston, the AFC’s current top team, look rather ordinary and at times downright silly in coasting to a 42-14 victory. Let’s also not forget that this game, just like last week’s, is being played in Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. In his career, Tom Brady is 74-13 at home during the regular season and the Patriots have won their last 20 December home games. Their last loss in December at home came back in 2002 and with as well as the Patriots have been playing lately, I don’t see this streak ending tonight.
Patriots 27, 49ers 21