SERIES: 11th meeting. 49ers lead series, 7-3. The two teams haven't met since 2004 when the Patriots closed the regular season with a 21-7 win at Gillette Stadium. Despite San Francisco's overall dominance, the Patriots have won the last two meetings, though they've never beaten the 49ers on the road in four tries. The last time these two played in San Francisco was 1995, when the 49ers cruised to a 28-3 victory.
PREDICTION: Patriots 23-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots had the bye week to take a step back and figure out how to best assimilate QB Matt Cassel. After a less than spectacular preseason and struggles against Miami two weeks ago, Cassel has proven he can't run the same explosive spread offense as QB Tom Brady. Traveling cross-country, expect the Patriots to come out with a more run-centric offense and rely on their defense to pick up the slack. With RB Laurence Maroney unimpressive early on, Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan could shoulder more of the load. ... Credit 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz for recognizing RB Frank Gore as his most consistent performer and remaining committed to establishing Gore in the running and passing games. The Patriots are allowing 140.7 yards per game on the ground, so this is an opportunity for San Francisco to let Gore dictate the tempo of the game and set up QB J.T. O'Sullivan.
KEY INJURIES: Patriots: WR Kelly Washington (ankle) and CB Lewis Sanders (hamstring) are uncertain. 49ers: RT Jonas Jennings (shoulder) will be replaced by Barry Sims; LB Manny Lawson (hamstring) is out.
FAST FACTS: This is the first of a team-record four games on the West Coast for the Patriots this season. ... The 49ers will retire the No. 8 jersey of QB Steve Young. ... O'Sullivan is on pace to be sacked 76 times this season.
--WR Kelley Washington missed practice Thursday for the second day in a row with an ankle injury. The wideout/special teams ace sat out against Miami and is in danger of missing another game, which would further deplete New England's receiving corps.
--LB Eric Alexander missed his second consecutive practice Thursday with a hamstring injury. Also a key contributor on special teams, Alexander has not played since Week 1 and does not appear any closer toward suiting up for Sunday's game.
--WR Wes Welker missed portions of Thursday's practice with a groin injury. In all likelihood, Welker sustained the injury during Wednesday's practice since he was on the field and in the locker room during media availability. The injury does not appear to be serious since he did not skip the entire practice.
--CB Lewis Sanders missed his second consecutive practice with a hamstring injury. Sanders has played in all three games primarily as a nickel back, though he started at left cornerback in Week 1.
--CB Terrence Wheatley could be in line for more playing time on sub-defense packages if CB Lewis Sanders is unable to play. Wheatley emerged from training camp as a front-runner to win the starting left cornerback job, but has been relegated to special teams duty since the start of the season.
--LB Patrick Willis has gotten off to a good start in his second NFL season. Willis leads the 49ers with 43 tackles. He has one interception, a fumble recovery, three quarterback hurries and five passes defensed.
--LB Manny Lawson is out of this week's game with a hamstring strain. Lawson has been used primarily on special teams this season, and leads the team with five solo tackles. He has also blocked a punt.
--SS Michael Lewis is second on the 49ers with 34 tackles this season. Lewis also has broken up four passes, ranking second on the team to LB Patrick Willis.
--FB Zak Keasey is the 49ers' only fullback on the roster. He has started three games this season. Keasey has yet to carry the football, but he has three receptions for 25 yards. He is also one of the team's top special-teams players with five tackles and a team-leading 26 blocks on returns.
--LB Parys Haralson will start Sunday against the Patriots, as he takes over for injured OLB Manny Lawson. Haralson is also in the 49ers' pass-rush package, so he is capable of being a three-down player. Haralson leads the 49ers with three quarterback sacks.
Matt Cassel finally answered the question everyone's been dying to ask for two weeks: When the heck are you going to get Randy Moss the ball?
"You would always like to get Randy involved," Cassel said Thursday. "I don't really have much to do with that other then the fact that I go through my reads and I let the coaches game plan and do the things to get Randy the ball."
So far, neither Cassel nor the Patriots have done those "things" the quarterback alluded to Thursday. Moss has caught just one touchdown through three games. At this time last year, he had five.
Who's to blame? Is Tom Brady's absence the reason for Moss' decline in production, or are opposing defenses going to great lengths to take him out of the game after watching him set an NFL record with 23 touchdown catches last season?
Truth be told, it's a little of both, but Cassel is confident the two will build the necessary chemistry over the course of time. Also, having a bye week following a disastrous loss to Miami certainly helped expedite the process.
"Just continue to work hard," Cassel said when asked how he and Moss can get on the same page. "It will happen. We are growing together and our chemistry is growing together. We will be fine."
The bye week gave Cassel an opportunity to evaluate his own performance while working toward developing a symbiotic relationship with Moss similar to what the Pro Bowl receiver had last year with Brady.
"It's good anytime you can get out there and work on things that maybe you are a little bit deficient in and also build on those things you have done well on," Cassel said. "It is always good to have that week and we were able to utilize it."
To his credit, Cassel has shown remarkable maturity in just three games by resisting the temptation to just drop back and chuck the ball deep as Moss runs his route.
"You have to go through your reads and you have to make smart decisions because if you start forcing it in to double coverage you will get into bad habits and that is when bad plays happen," Cassel said. "As much as you would like to get the ball to him as much as possible, you still have to be smart with the football, especially as a guy in there trying to make the right decisions with the ball."
The time off helped, but Cassel is ultimately looking forward to getting back on the field Sunday in San Francisco. Another game gives him another opportunity to work on building his relationship with Moss.
"I always look forward to playing," Cassel said. "We come in here and we work so hard during the week and throughout the offseason to get out there on Sundays and play. The more I get out there and the more experience I get the more comfortable I will become."
San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore is gearing up for what promises to be an intense day on Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Gore leads the NFL with 525 yards from scrimmage through four games. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz likes to feature Gore as a runner and receiver.
Martz considers Gore the central figure of the offense, much the same way Marshall Faulk was the key offensive player on Martz's explosive St. Louis Rams teams.
When the Rams met the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, Bill Belichick devised a strategy in which New England defenders tried to punish Faulk physically on every play -- whether he touched the ball or not. Gore said he is ready if the Patriots try a similar tactic on him.
"They might just try to do that," Gore said. "New Orleans tried to do that," Gore said. "They had two 'backers follow me all over."
One element that the Patriots will be ready to defend is Gore getting direct snaps in the shotgun formation.
Gore did not have much success when he ran the play against the Detroit Lions two weeks ago, gaining just three yards on a third-and-10 play. However, that formation proved beneficial against the Patriots.
Miami running back Ronnie Brown took six direct snaps in the Dolphins' shocking 38-13 victory over the Patriots two weeks ago. Brown ran three times for 69 yards and three touchdowns; he threw a 19-yard TD pass; and he handed off twice to Ricky Williams for 31 yards.
Gore played quarterback during his youth football days in Miami. He said he is capable of throwing passes, too. He said he compares favorably with teammate Michael Robinson, a running back who played quarterback in college.
"Mike's got a pretty good arm," Gore said. "I'm close to him. I told him I could've played quarterback at Penn State, too."
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