Matchups to watch: Patriots offense vs. 49ers defense
WRs Randy Moss and Wes Welker vs. 49ers secondary
The Patriots have yet to get Randy Moss on track, but once he catches the long ball, teams have stop moving eight men into the box to shut down the Pats primary goal of running the ball. Play action is where Tom Brady made hay last season because the run was effective. Even when the Patriots didn't run, Brady would launch the ball to Moss deep, typically hitting on one to two big plays a game. If the 49ers experienced defense can hold Moss in check, they still have to deal with Welker. Moss deep and Welker short has been the plan, something the 49ers are sure to key on. Though Moss has only had one 100-yard game so far this season, he's been open deep. Cassel hasn't had time to get the ball to him. If San Francisco keys on Moss, they need to limit what Welker can do underneath. Welker leads the Patriots offense with 19 catches for 178 yards (9.4 avg.).
Patriots offensive line vs. DE/LB Justin Smith
Smith has been a matchup nightmare for opposing offenses so far as the 49ers move him around throughout the front level of their defense to put him in optimum positions to rush the passer and make plays along the line of scrimmage. Smith has lined up at all seven positions along the defensive front and has provided good pressure from several of them, which has presented opportunities for teammates when he's not getting to the quarterback himself. The 49ers don't want to see Cassel get into any kind of rhythm, and they'll be looking for Smith to bring heat from the edges. The New England offensive line will have to account for where Smith is on every play.
49ers front seven vs. QB Matt Cassel and Patriots running game
Stopping the run has worked for teams that try to contain the Patriots high-powered offense. By limiting Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, teams have forced Matt Cassel to try to beat them through the air. The Patriots' offensive line, which earned three All-Pro honors in 2007, isn't the same. Billy Yates has stepped in for Stephen Neal, and though he's done an admirable job, the Patriots still manage barely 100 yards per game with less than 4 yards per carry.
Matchups to watch: Patriots defense vs. 49ers offense
New England's front seven vs. RB Frank Gore
The Patriots' defense needs to find a way to contain Frank Gore. As Ronnie Brown showed in Week 3, the Patriots have trouble stopping the run. New England is 31st in the league on third-down defense allowing a ridiculous 49 percent conversion rate. It's been a problem all through the preseason and isn't showing any signs of stopping now. Brown chewed up the Patriots front three, and didn't' slow down while busting through the line into the linebacker group. New England ranks 25th against the run, giving up a 140 yards per game on the ground. More alarming is the pathetic 5.0 yards per carry the team has given up. All San Francisco has to do is run Gore two-thirds of the time and they'll be able to sustain drives.
Patriots secondary vs. QB J.T. O'Sullivan
O'Sullivan has keyed a resurgent San Francisco aerial attack with his pinpoint passing and ability to get the ball down the field. He was intercepted twice in the end zone last week against New Orleans, however, and the opportunistic New England secondary will look to force the same kind of mistakes. The Patriots will have their hands full trying to stop San Francisco's running game, so if New England brings its safeties into the box, O'Sullivan will look to exploit single-coverage opportunities. But the Patriots are known for their disciplined, stellar play in the secondary, so O'Sullivan will have to be patient, and that's not easy for a guy who has had opposing defenses breathing down his neck during the first three games of the season.
Patriots linebackers vs. TE Vernon Davis
The short passing game has also been an issue for the New England defense. If the Patriots can't get Tedy Bruschi, Jerod Mayo and Adalius Thomas to cover players out of the backfield or tight end Vernon Davis, it will be a long day. Chad Pennington used the play action pass to pick apart the Patriots defense. Although San Francisco has the second-most big plays in the league (next to Dallas), those plays can start as short runs or passes which break into big gains.
The Patriots will win if…
… they can get the offense on track and find a way to stop Frank Gore. If that doesn't happen, it will be a long day for New England and the rapidly fading hopes of winning the AFC East without Tom Brady.
The 49ers will win if…
… they can prevent mistakes and killer turnovers on offense and not allow the Patriots to hit the big play when they have the ball. If the 49ers continue to move the ball regularly and can shed their inconsistency on defense, this could be a watershed victory that sends them on their way to a successful season.
The Patriots will lose if …
… if the 49ers can exploit the biggest weakness on the New England team – third-down defense. With opponents achieving nearly a 50 percent success rate on third down, the Patriots defense has allowed teams to change field position to their advantage. The 49ers will be able to score points if those conversions come in New England territory. They'll be able to get into scoring position by using a balanced attack. And when successful, they should be able to win the game.
The 49ers will lose if …
… they allow the Patriots to control the ball with their running game and don't apply adequate pressure to Cassel. If the Patriots can keep the San Francisco offense off the field, pressure O'Sullivan and cause some turnovers, which have plagued San Francisco in its two losses, that will be the formula for a New England victory.
Jon Scott: Patriots 24-20. I'm only picking New England because I think the bye week favors Belichick and the Patriots. I think the team will do enough to fix their Achilles heel (third-down defense) and get pressure on the 49ers. If Randy Moss can get on track – and this is just his fourth full week practicing with Cassel as the No. 1 QB – then it will open up a Patriots offense that still has all the weapons necessary to score.
Craig Massei: 49ers 20-17. The 49ers know the Patriots are a much better team than the one that showed up against Miami two weeks ago, but they still are getting the Pats when they are down and at home, where San Francisco plays well. The 49ers will play New England tough on defense, and San Francisco should be able to eke out enough points to record a big victory that won't feel much like an upset by the time it's over.
Craig Massei covers the 49ers for SFIllustrated.com.
Jon Scott covers the Patriots for PatriotsInsider.com.
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