PHOTO: New England Patriots placekicker Adam Vinatieri approaches the hold of Josh Miller against the St. Louis Rams. (AP Photo)
San Francisco 49ers (2-13) at New England Patriots (13-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Curt Menefee, Tim Green; DirecTV, 7
SERIES: 10th meeting. The 49ers lead 7-2, the Patriots winning the last meeting 24-21 in Foxboro, Mass., in 1998.
2004 RANKINGS: 49ers: offense 26th (30th rush, 19th pass); defense 22nd (19th rush, 17th pass). Patriots: offense 8th (8th rush, 14th pass); defense 9th (4th rush, 20th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: As usual, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has held his cards close to his vest and won't reveal how much he intends to play his starters. Of course, it might not matter against the 49ers. QB Ken Dorsey will get the start for San Francisco, but the real key is RB Kevan Barlow. He has been a disappointment all season, but he must have success for the 49ers to keep the game competitive because the 49ers' offensive line can't hold up in pass protection. Regardless of how much RB Corey Dillon plays, the Patriots will rely heavily on the running game. San Francisco's beleaguered defense doesn't offer much in the way of resistance and New England should have little trouble as long as it doesn't lose the turnover battle by a large margin.
FAST FACTS: 49ers: Have a minus-20 turnover margin. ... Barlow needs one touchdown to break his career high of seven. Patriots: QB Tom Brady needs three touchdowns and 299 passing yards to break his single-season career highs of 28 and 3,764 set in 2002. ... K Adam Vinatieri's 138 points is a career high and 17 shy of Gino Cappelletti's single-season team record.
PREDICTION: Patriots 24-10
- WR Brandon Lloyd did not practice Thursday due to a left toe flexor strain
and is still listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Patriots.
If he is unable to play, veteran Curtis Conway will start in his place.
- WR P.J. Fleck was promoted to the 53-man roster for this week so the 49ers
could sign him to a multi-year extension, 49ers GM Terry Donahue said. Fleck
has been on the practice squad all season. He caught three passes for 63 yards
in the exhibition season. It is unlikely he will suit up for Sunday's game,
but he could be used for special-teams duty.
- DE Josh Cooper, who spent one game on the active roster this season, was
promoted from the practice squad. He will likely suit up and see action Sunday
against the Patriots.
- DE Corey Smith sustained torn cartilage in a warmup drill at practice when
he was jumping over bags. Smith, signed last week of the Buccaneers' practice
squad, played last week against the Bills and but was not credited with any
- DT Bryant Young needs nine tackles to tie his career-high of 84 tackles.
He already has the second-most tackles of his 11-year career.
- LB Derek Smith reached the 100-tackle plateau for the eighth straight year. Smith has 153 tackles, ranking second on the team behind Jeff Ulbrich's 155.
- DL Jarvis Green will likely draw the start for New England at right defensive
end in place of Richard Seymour on Sunday. Green is a 2002 fourth-round pick
out of LSU who has steadily improved since joining the Patriots. He's been
mostly a role player with some spot starts, but he will be pressed into action
this week. "I think Jarvis has been productive on a per-play basis since
he's been here," head coach Bill Belichick said. "He's had a lot
of production for the amount of plays he's been in there. He shows up positively,
and he's done that consistently for three years."
- DL Marquise Hill, a 2004 second-round draft pick out of LSU, hasn't played
in a game this season. He's been active twice, including Sunday, but has yet
to step foot on the field after leaving LSU a year early -- probably a year
too early. There is a good chance he sees his first action Sunday against
the 49ers. "I think he's developing well," coach Bill Belichick
said. "He's continued to take his reps in practice, and he's worked on
- FB Patrick Pass has been a valuable performer for New England this year,
and like many of his teammates, he has played a variety of roles. He's been
a lead blocker as a fullback, he's carried the ball as a tailback, he's caught
the ball out of the backfield and he's contributed in the kicking game as
a returner and in kick coverage. His contributions don't necessarily show
up on the stat sheets. He's rushed for 125 yards and has 23 receptions for
193 yards, but he also has filled in adequately for Kevin Faulk as a third-down
back when Faulk has been out with two different knee ailments. Belichick believes
that Pass' best pay of the year came when he stopped a fake punt vs. the Jets.
- LB Willie McGinest was drafted by the Patriots in 1995 and is second in
consecutive years of service with the club behind Troy Brown, who was selected
in 1993. Both players have seen it all in New England, from five-win seasons
to Super Bowl titles, and McGinest is proud to have been part of an organizational
resurgence that took place after Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick. "I
think it's an honor to be considered part of a model organization," McGinest
said. "We just work hard, do what we're supposed to do and play team
ball." That attitude has helped the team go 27-4 in its last 31 regular-season
- QB Tom Brady vows to play and start Sunday against the 49ers even though the game is meaningless for both clubs. Asked about the risk of injury in a game with so little at stake with the postseason looming, Brady said, "You could (get hurt) in practice and you could do the same thing driving home. You can hurt yourself on the practice field just as easily as you could on the game field. We just go out there and do what we have always been doing. Nobody wants to get hurt, but playing football, the reality is that you can get hurt the first playoff game on the first play."
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The 49ers have no clearer picture of their future at quarterback than they did when the season began.
Starter Tim Rattay played in just nine games this season and he was never 100 percent healthy at any time. His results were spotty at best. He completed 60.9 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 78.1.
Backup Ken Dorsey, a second-year pro, struggled in his first six starts. He will start the season finale Sunday against the New England Patriots.
"I don't think that anybody could stand up on the table and say beyond a reasonable doubt, this is where we're at - good or bad," 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said. "I don't think we could do that. I look at Ken Dorsey and I watched him play against Arizona, and when he's protected he'll throw some errant passes, but he also threw some terrific balls and give us to a nice win.
"I watch Tim Rattay and watch him throw for 417 and say, 'Hey, that guy can play.' Then I watch him other weeks and they're off the money ... and you question whether or not you're going to have to get a quarterback."
The 49ers will own the No. 1 pick in the draft, and Donahue said he isn't sure if they will be in the market for a quarterback.
"You'd much rather have it clear," Donahue said. "Unquestionably, you'd rather have a clear definitive answer to our quarterback situation."
Donahue was noncommittal about what the 49ers will do with the No. 1 pick. He will not comment on the possibility of junior quarterbacks Matt Leinart (USC) or Aaron Rodgers (California) declaring for the draft.
"It appears we have the first shot, but there might not be a quarterback," Donahue said. "There's clearly not a Michael Vick or a Peyton Manning in this year's draft. So that's different than a lot of years."
Tom Brady has been sacked just 25 times. Corey Dillon has rushed for 1,519 yards and 11 touchdowns. Yet the Patriots offensive line remains unheralded. But is it being shortchanged in the credit department, or do the Patriots just have enough talent around the line to make the front five look better than it actually is?
That's difficult to say. Antowain Smith never approached 1,500 yards during his three years in New England, and he had most of the same linemen in front of him for at least part of his time with the Patriots. If the line was blocking the same for Smith as it now is for Dillon, then the upgrade at running back has made a huge difference and made the line look better.
But has Dillon made it look better than it is or did Smith make it look worse? Is Dillon simply hitting creases and holes that were there before and that Smith was unable to take advantage of? Probably, since he's not just running over defenders every week.
Dillon became the Patriots' all-time single-season rushing leader last week in the win over the Jets, and while he has been terrific in making yards after contact, he hardly did it alone.
"I think it's great (that he set the record) because we're not known as one of the top lines in the league," guard Joe Andruzzi said. "We're trying to make a mark for ourselves. Most of us are guys that weren't supposed to make it in this league -- at least four out of five of us. We stick together and play real well together. We communicate real well; we have the guys here that play together as a group."
The group as it is currently constituted is made up of two undrafted players, a fifth-round pick, a seventh-round pick and a second-round pick, yet it has paved the way for an offense that ranks eighth in the league in rushing and 13th in passing.
But pass protection has been more of a problem than the 25 sacks allowed indicate, and teams have thrown some different things at the front that the Patriots haven't been prepared for at the start of games.
After some sideline adjustments, things usually settle down. But in the team's two losses this year, pass-protection problems have directly and indirectly led to turnovers, either because of a strip sack or because Brady has rushed a throw that gets intercepted.
"I think, for the most part, we handle things well," center Dan Koppen said. "We can still get better, and we're always working on our techniques and our communication. But I think as long as we can keep Tom clean and receivers are getting open, things are good. There are breakdowns and things we need to work on, and we do."
"I think we keep improving," guard Stephen Neal added. "The more looks we see, the better we get. We had a couple of free rushers and mental errors in this last game against the Jets, which we need to fix."
They need to get those things fixed quickly. During last year's postseason, the Patriots did not allow a sack. Some of that was because of the line's play while some had to do with Brady's knack for avoiding pressure in the pocket and his ability deliver the ball quickly.
But Brady has been hit plenty this season, and it has taken its toll on his body.
"I'm sore," he admitted. "I'm getting out of the bed like a 60-year-old man, just hobbling to put my clothes on. I think it's just normal bumps and bruises."
Maybe so. But his protection needs to step up in January for the Patriots to have the kind of success for which they are hoping.
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