Matchups to watch: Dolphins defense vs. 49ers offense
Dolphins ROLB Joey Porter vs. 49ers LT Joe Staley: Porter will line up on both sides during the course of a game, but more often than not he's on the right side coming from the quarterback's blind side. Porter also is very good at stripping the ball from behind when he beats his blocker. Some tackles have had success with Porter one-on-one, but he's relentless and won't stop trying getting to the quarterback. Some teams have tried a tight end at times, but that usually spells disaster for the offense. Staley will have his hands full.
Dolphins secondary vs. 49ers WRs and TE Vernon Davis: The 49ers have been having success with their short and intermediate passing game now that Shaun Hill is directing the offense, and with featured back Frank Gore questionable with an ankle injury, the Niners will likely come at the Dolphins with offensive coordinator Mike Martz's entire arsenal of offensive plays. The 49ers will get rookie Josh Morgan back from injury this week, and San Francisco will occasionally have four wideouts on the field who all can do damage. The unknown factor is Davis, who can make big plays when the 49ers decide to get him involved, which hasn't been often this season.
Matchups to watch: Dolphins offense vs. 49ers defense
Dolphins QB Chad Pennington vs. 49ers CB Nate Clements: Clements has plenty of experience against the Dolphins from his days with the Buffalo Bills and he's had his share of success against Miami. He had one game in 2002 when he picked off three passes, including one he returned for a touchdown, to lead the Bills to a victory. Clements missed last Sunday's game because of a thumb injury, and he is going to have a hard time coming up with an interception in this game. And it's not necessarily because of the thumb, which is in a soft cast, but rather because Pennington simply doesn't throw any picks. Thanks largely to Pennington, the Dolphins lead the NFL in fewest giveaways and Pennington isn't likely to force things on Sunday. If the Dolphins fall behind, though, that could change things and that's where Clements could play a factor.
Dolphins RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams vs. 49ers ILBs Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes: This is the game within the game as the Dolphins and Niners go power and strength against power and strength. Brown and Williams have combined for 1,312 yards and 13 TDs rushing, and it will be up to San Francisco's dynamic duo of inside linebackers to keep them from getting to the second level. Stopping the run first will be a top priority for the 49ers, and that's a strength of both Spikes and Willis, the NFL's reigning tackle champion who currently ranks second in the league this year in that category.
The Dolphins will win if ...
... they play the same kind of error-free ball they played the last two weeks against the Rams and Bills. The defense hasn't given up a touchdown in two games, and it's not likely the 49ers are going to march up and down the field on Sunday. The Dolphins just need to make sure they don't give up any cheap scores on special teams, an area that's been a problem this season, or with a bad turnover. The Dolphins might not be the most talented team in the league, but they certainly appear to be more talented than the 49ers and therefore just need to take care of their own business.
The 49ers will win if ...
... they control the ball and sustain offensive drives to wear down the Miami defense and keep Miami's offense off the field. This was the perfect formula for the 49ers last week against the New York Jets, when they controlled the ball for almost 40 minutes and had huge advantages in total yards and first downs. The 49ers have build momentum with consecutive wins over Buffalo and New York, and they can continue their streak if they play the same form of consistent and inspired football that got them those two victories.
The Dolphins will lose if ...
... for some reason they don't tackle well on Sunday, Frank Gore isn't too affected by his ankle injury and runs wild at Dolphin Stadium. The former University of Miami star looks like the one guy who really can hurt the Dolphins. The Miami defense had some problems with Steven Jackson two Sundays ago, but he wasn't given the ball often enough in the second half to really be able to make a difference. If this game stays close and Gore's ankle holds up, one would expect he would get plenty of carries playing in his hometown. The Dolphins offense is coming off back-to-back games with only 16 points, so we wouldn't expect a slugfest in this one, but the Dolphins have been efficient. If that changes, there could be problems.
The 49ers will lose if ...
... they don't protect the football and make the kind of mistakes and turnovers that plagued them earlier in the season and have surfaced occasionally several times since then. The 49ers rank last in the NFL in both turnovers (30) and turnover differential (-14), while the Dolphins have produced 22 takeaways and lead the NFL in turnover differential (+14). If the Dolphins increase both their takeaway total and turnover differential, it will not bode well for San Francisco's chances of a second consecutive road victory.
Alain Poupart: Miami 20, San Francisco 13: The Dolphins will win the AFC East if they can run the table of beat the 49ers, Chiefs and Jets, but it's not likely they will be overlooking a 49ers team that is playing much better under Mike Singletary. The Dolphins aren't explosive enough to blow out many teams -- exceptions, like the 38-13 victory at New England, do happen -- but they've been very good at closing out games this season. This has the look of a much tougher game than it initially appeared, but the Dolphins are on a roll. Pennington has been flawless in recent weeks and there's no reason to think he won't deliver big plays again in the clutch.
Craig Massei: San Francisco 19, Miami 17: The 49ers are in the midst of a pretty good run through the AFC East right now and they are playing some of their best football in the past five years. The progress under interim head coach Mike Singletary continues here in a hard-fought game that goes down to the wire and is decided in the fourth quarter by kicker Joe Nedney's fourth field goal of the game.
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