NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England matches up against San Francisco tonight in the Patriots’ most challenging regular-season game remaining; winning would make New England a favorite to earn a first-round bye, while a loss may prevent New England from earning one of the top two spots in the AFC.
The 49ers are also contending for a first-round bye: they are currently seeded second in the NFC with a 9-3-1 record. Read on for ten keys to this pivotal contest.
1. What does this game mean for New England in regards to playoff seeding?
Despite dismantling the Houston Texans last week, New England sits one seed behind them in the AFC; the Patriots hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Houston, but must rely on the Texans losing at least one more time this season – they play the Colts twice and host the Minnesota Vikings in week 16 – in order to earn home-field advantage. However, by winning against San Francisco, the Patriots would be well-positioned to finish second in the conference, ahead of the Denver Broncos (10-3) and the Baltimore Ravens (9-4).
Those two teams – Denver and Baltimore – play each other tonight in one of the most significant regular-season games remaining; New England holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos, but should the Ravens win today and finish with the same record as the Patriots and Broncos, Baltimore would win a three-way tie by virtue of winning head-to-head matchups against both teams.
Denver will be heavily favored in their final two games – they host 5-8 Cleveland and 2-11 Kansas City – meaning they should go at least 12-4 on the season. Of the two, Baltimore is more likely to lose another game (either vs. the New York Giants in week 16 or at Cincinnati in week 17), so it may be advantageous to the Patriots if the Ravens are able to defeat Denver this weekend. Nonetheless, winning against San Francisco is New England’s best chance of earning a first-round bye.
2. Which elements of New England’s offense will Josh McDaniels emphasize?
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a propensity for balanced playcalling; he has called passes on roughly 55% of New England’s snaps, with the other 45% or so being rushing attempts. San Francisco’s defense does not offer opponents many opportunities in either facet of the game, ranking second in both pass defense and run defense; McDaniels must test both aspects of Vic Fangio’s defense, but this week it may be beneficial to trust Tom Brady’s decision-making by focusing more on the passing game than typical.
However, it’s also possible that adverse weather conditions may affect McDaniels’ gameplan: the current weather forecast calls for temperatures between 37 and 39 degrees, with a 60% chance of precipitation. A snowy game may benefit San Francisco; New England stands among the top ten in both rushing yards gained and opposing rushing yards allowed, but the 49ers hold higher rankings in both of the two categories.
3. What kind of production can the Patriots expect from their run game?
New England’s rushing game has been arguably their most pleasant surprise of the season: they currently rank seventh in the league in rushing, averaging 139.9 yards per game. Four of their running backs have made an impact: Stevan Ridley leads the attack with 1082 yards and ten touchdowns on 243 carries, but Brandon Bolden (245 yards, two touchdowns), Danny Woodhead (215 yards, two touchdowns), and Shane Vereen (213 yards, three touchdowns) are also major contributors. In total, the Patriots are gaining 4.2 yards per attempt.
However, whether or not they will be able to produce against San Francisco’s second-ranked run defense (90.8 yards per game allowed) is a legitimate concern heading into tonight’s contest. Both of San Francisco’s defensive ends – Ray McDonald on the left, Justin Smith on the right – are excellent run defenders, and linebackers Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Ahmad Brooks also excel in that regard. If there is a weak point on San Francisco’s defensive front, it is at nose tackle, where 321-pound Isaac Sopoaga has been inconsistent.
New England’s offensive line has been a strength this season, but they will need to put together one of their best performances of the season in order for the Patriots to establish the running game as a second dimension to their offense.
4. Can New England’s wide receivers exploit San Francisco’s cornerbacks?
Perhaps New England’s greatest offensive advantage this week is at wide receiver, where Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd match up favorably against 49ers cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown.
Welker is just five catches away from his fifth season of 100 catches or more; despite dropping 14 passes on the season (including three in last week’s matchup against the Texans), he will likely be targeted early and often against Carlos Rogers. Welker must gain separation from Rogers quickly and consistently on short and intermediate routes in order to protect Tom Brady from San Francisco’s pass rushers; Rogers has held opposing receivers to just one touchdown on the season, but has allowed 54/73 targets to be completed (74%).
49ers right cornerback Tarrell Brown should give Brandon Lloyd some difficulty; on the season, Brown has allowed 40/69 passes to be completed, with one interception, eight passes defensed, and no touchdowns allowed for a quarterback rating of 78.7. Lloyd’s seven catches on eight targets last week are cause for optimism; one of his catches went for a 37-yard touchdown, and he also recovered a fumble in the end zone for a second score.
If Deion Branch can add anything against Chris Culliver (24/56, 256 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 8 PD), it will be considered an added bonus.
5. Will Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez be able to separate in coverage?
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is unquestionably among New England’s most dangerous receiving options; however, Tom Brady may have to wean himself off of Hernandez this week to some extent. San Francisco’s linebackers – Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Ahmad Brooks – form the top unit in the entire league; each should see some snaps in coverage on Hernandez.
Smith (77/825 snaps in coverage) and Brooks (89/801 snaps) are primarily utilized in run defense and as pass rushers, meaning that Bowman (437/821 snaps in coverage) and Willis (420/803) are the most likely defenders. Additionally, the 49ers boast two talented safeties: free safety Dashon Goldson and strong safety Donte Whitner.
Goldson in particular has been impressive: on the season, he has allowed just 17 completions on 31 attempts for 192 yards and one touchdown, intercepting three passes and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 44.8 rating against. Whitner is the more appealing target of the two: he has struggled to adapt to San Francisco’s defense, allowing 27/32 passing for 231 yards and six touchdowns, intercepting just one pass. His quarterback rating against stands at 123.3.