Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Patriots, Part I

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and PatriotsInsider's Jon Scott go Behind Enemy Lines to preview Sunday's 49ers/Patriots showdown. What's made the Patriots dynasty the gold standard in today's NFL? What's the secret of Tom Brady's brilliance? What has the return of Josh McDaniels meant to NE's top-ranked offense, and what kind of impact has former 49er WR Brandon Lloyd had? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, publisher, After starting 1-2 and 3-3, it's beginning to look like the same old Patriots, who are rolling now with a seven-game winning streak and several convincing routs. But with Tom Brady getting up there in age, are we now seeing the twilight of the Patriots dynasty, or will it live on for several more years to come? What are the primary elements that have kept the Pats at the top for so long in this age of NFL parity and made them the gold standard in the league today?

Jon Scott, publisher, When looking at the Patriots' success, you have to attribute it to Tom Brady being in the mix. Even though the year he was hurt (2008) Matt Cassel managed to guide the team to an 11-win season (missing the playoffs due to a tiebreaker), the foundation was set. Certainly the team has found a new level of success under Brady and Belichick from the decades of struggles that plagued the franchise. The pair is responsible for a 10-year stretch of 10-win seasons, a streak second only to the 16-year record held by the 49ers. The 49ers and Patriots are the only two teams in NFL history with 10 consecutive 10-win seasons. Belichick and Brady's success is in part reminiscent of the impact Bill Walsh had with Joe Montana and later Steve Young in San Francisco.

Craig Massei: Brady truly is amazing, already one of the all-time greats as he continues to put up awe-inspiring numbers. How is he able to maintain his extraordinary level of play with so many defensive schemes designed to stop him, and is he still playing now as well as he ever has? As he's matured as a player and individual, what has allowed him to keep improving and maintain his level of performance?

Jon Scott: Brady is the kind of guy who never stops working to get better. He can be beaten, he has struggles in games (even this season), but he works on figuring out what a defense is trying to do, and figure out how to beat it. One of the most impressive aspects of watching Brady play is how a defense will find success shutting him down for 3 or 4 drives in row, then – as if a light bulb went on – Brady and the Patriots offense explodes for a big drive or a bunch of quick scores. Once he figures out what the defense is trying to do to slow him down, he makes an adjustment. As if you didn't already know, Brady's really good at making adjustments.

Craig Massei: What has the return of Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator meant to the Patriots and how they approach things on that side of the ball? Is the offense better now because he's back? How has it changed since McDaniels rejoined the staff? And how has the Patriots' ability to run the ball better affected the entire offense? How much has McDaniels had to do with that?

Jon Scott: McDaniels is very good at working with Brady designing offensive game plans that break down a defense. A former college QB himself, McDaniels understands what a QB needs in terms of little signs the defense is forced to reveal. He and Brady work very well together creating those situations, and as I said before, Brady can make a defense pay. Is McDaniels the key? Many in New England would argue just the opposite. But Bill O'Brien ran an offense that kept most of the successful McDaniels scheme intact. This year, the team has completely morphed on offense, switching to a five tight end power look. They've been able to run the ball out of their double TE sets better and that leads to a host of opportunities downfield.

Craig Massei: Yet another offensive question here. What has the addition of former 49er Brandon Lloyd meant for the passing game? Was he just another new complementary part to plug in this season, or has his impact been more significant than that? How have the Patriots adjusted to the loss of Rob Gronkowski, and what are his chances of returning this week after not practicing again earlier in the week? Has the loss of Gronkowski put more pressure on Wes Welker, Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez, or do the Pats still have plenty enough talented targets to go around for Brady?

Jon Scott: The Patriots' wide receiving corps is similar to the ugly stepchild in the offense. They do not get the attention of the other groups, and retreads or hand-me-downs are considered welcome additions. Look at the entire group and you'd swear that the Patriots had no chance to open things up in the passing game. Put the entire group on another roster and they'd have a fraction of the success they have in Foxboro. Lloyd brought in a boatload of ability, but was new to the Patriots system . Although he has some familiarity with Josh McDaniels, he still has the occasional miscommunication with Brady that causes the offense to sputter. If he can get on the same page as Brady with his adjustments, you'll see more plays like his 37-yard touchdown vs. the Texans.

Craig Massei: The Patriots rank 26th in the NFL in total defense, but that's probably a deceiving number considering how much other teams have to let it fly to try and match bullets with the New England offense. The Pats sure looked good on that side of the ball Monday against Houston. Give us the lowdown on how New England has been playing on defense, how strong that unit is, and what does it have to do on Sunday to stop a San Francisco offense featuring a strong running game and a new wild-card at quarterback with the versatile and athletic Colin Kaepernick?

Jon Scott: The Patriots play a bend-don't-break style of defense. In years past, they haven't had the depth to hold up late in games which is why you see them getting beaten time and again. They have one of the worst standings in terms of yardage allowed, partially by design and partially by lack of talent. The issue that has plagued them is third downs. New England tends to allow teams to get out of third and longs more than they'd like. The scheme, designed to limit getting beat deep, requires defenders to play off their man. That allows sharp, concise routes to be completed, resulting in more first down conversions and hence more yards for opponents. The disturbing part for the Patriots is the number of bigger plays that have crept into the mix – the 20- or 30-yard pass plays. On Monday night, the Patriots played more aggressive coverage because their defensive backs and linebackers were playing more press coverage. That allowed the team to bring blitz pressure, forcing Matt Schaub to either eat the ball, or throw to his first or second read. When Schaub (or any other QB) has time, the Patriots defense breaks down. Against Kaepernick, I'd expect the team to try and contain the run (which they've been very good at), seal any holes for Kaepernick to scramble in, and force him to throw to win. While the 49ers rely on a solid ground game, Kaepernick has yet to prove that he can pass his way to victory, and that's just what the Patriots will try to find out if he can do. I'd say they're betting their secondary will hold up long enough to prevail.

Jon Scott's prediction: Much like the Houston game, I expect new England's defense to find ways to keep the opponent in the game, by failing to stop Kaepernick and Co. from converting on third down. However, I believe the Patriots no-huddle offense will be enough to throw a very solid 49ers defense off their game. I don't expect a high-scoring game like last week, but I do expect New England to continue its December dominance at home.

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