For the second week in a row, we have a primetime matchup between two of the league’s best teams. Last week the New England Patriots disposed of the Houston Texans, but things won’t get any easier this week as the San Francisco 49ers make the cross-country trip to Foxboro in what could be a Super Bowl preview.
The two teams are tops in the league in point differential as New England is scoring 198 more than its opponents, while San Francisco holds a 132-point advantage. The Patriots feature the top scoring offense (36.3 points/game) in the league, while the 49ers’ defense has been the stingiest on defense with only 14.1 points surrendered.
It’s a heavyweight battle any way you shape it, and both teams will have the nation’s attention as they continue to jockey for playoff positioning.
Let’s take a look at the key matchups in the game.
Patriots Passing Game vs. 49ers Secondary
It was a full team effort for the Patriots Monday night, but their success still starts with quarterback Tom Brady. Our No. 2 rated quarterback, he’s playing as well as ever this season and remains firmly entrenched in the thick of the MVP race. It’s a well-rounded passing game as wide receiver Wes Welker controls the short part of the field with his league-leading 70 receptions out of the slot. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd hasn’t put up the gaudy fantasy numbers many hoped when he signed with New England, but he’s filled his role as a deep and intermediate threat as 49% of his targets have been beyond 10 yards. Then there is tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has 16 receptions in the past two games. His Yards/Route Run ranks sixth at the position and he’s starting to regain the shiftiness that has been missing in his injury-riddled season.
How will San Francisco match up with New England’s weapons? It will start with cornerback Carlos Rogers, who kicks inside in their nickel package. He’ll see Welker the majority of the time and he ranks fifth among slot cornerbacks, surrendering only 0.88 Yards/Cover Snap. On the outside, cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver are having strong years with coverage grades of +8.8 and +8.9 respectively. Culliver plays exclusively in sub packages and he’s leading the league with only 0.66 Yards/Cover Snap, and he’s also at the top with only 42.9% of passes being completed his way. Brown is in the top half of the league at 32nd in Yards/Cover Snap at 1.20, and this looks like a secondary that is capable of keeping up with the Patriots’ passing attack.
Trench Battle 1: Patriots Offensive Line vs. 49ers Front Seven
OK, enough about the passing game. This game is going to feature some hard hitting action up front. The 49ers feature one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL while the Patriots’ offensive line deserves some credit for a revamped running attack. Last week, left guard Logan Mankins was outstanding in his return from injury grading at +4.1. He’ll see plenty of defensive end Justin Smith in one of the nastiest one-on-one battles of the season. Smith is second among 3-4 defensive ends with a Run Stop Percentage of 11.6 and while his Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) is down to 5.3 this season (9.1 in 2011), he’s still done his usual work in clogging up pass rush lanes to open the door for potential record-breaking sack artist Aldon Smith.
Another matchup to watch in the running game is center Ryan Wendell trying to get to the second level on inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Wendell is our top run blocker at the position at +17.7, while Willis and Bowman rank third (+12.6) and fourth (+10.8) against the run. Willis is our second-most efficient tackler at the position, missing one every 31.2 attempts, while Bowman is third in Run Stop Percentage at 13.2.
Finally, Aldon Smith and his 20 sacks deserve mention as he approaches the NFL sack record. Despite the big numbers, he is still lagging behind a few other defensive players in the race for the Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s on a tear of late grading at +14.5 in his past four games, with 11 sacks. He’ll be matched up with tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, who rank 23rd (95.3) and 25th (95.1) in Pass Blocking Efficiency.
Trench Battle 2: 49ers Offensive Line vs. Patriots Defensive Line
The 49ers may have the most diverse running game in the league and they’ll be going up a Patriots’ front seven that is built to stop the run. San Francisco is capable of running anything from man or zone schemes to now incorporating more quarterback runs with Colin Kaepernick at the helm. The run blocking from the offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks has been outstanding. There are great matchups all along both lines, but keep a close eye on the interior. Guards Alex Boone (+17.1 run block) and Mike Iupati (+19.6 run block), as well as center Jonathan Goodwin (+12.6 run block) will have their work cut out for them against New England’s front, particularly defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. He’s been outstanding of late, grading at +15.0 over his past four games and recording 12 stops.
On the outside, defensive end Chandler Jones has been New England’s best pass rusher at +4.7 and a PRP of 8.4. He’ll match up with San Francisco’s best pass blocker, left tackle Joe Staley, who is grading at +9.9 with a PBE of 95.7.
It’s strength against strength all over the field for this game so it should be one of the most exiting matchups of the entire season.
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