Last Monday night, the New England Patriots not only made a statement to the rest of the NFL in their 42-14 win over the Houston Texans, but they made a statement to this writer right here who picked New England to lose for only the 2nd time in his three years at this website. Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns as the Patriots now control their own destiny for at least the number two seed in the AFC Playoffs and a 1st round bye. After Monday’s matchup was an AFC Championship Preview, the matchup this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers has the potential to be a Super Bowl preview for early February.
Once again, head coach Jim Harbaugh has the San Francisco 49ers playing at a high level in the NFC with a record of 9-3-1. However, they still have not clinched their division yet with the Seattle Seahawks nipping at their heels. Also, all the talk around San Francisco has been about their quarterback situation. About a month ago, Harbaugh benched Alex Smith for second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick after Smith suffered a concussion. Even when Smith was healthy, Harbaugh stuck with the more mobile, exciting playmaker in Kaepernick. San Fran is 3-1 in games he has started, but time will tell if this situation pans out like the Patriots had with Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady back in 2001. San Fran still has a stacked defense and they can run the football as a physical offense.
Here are my three keys to this potential Super Bowl Preview:
1. The Kaped Krusader: I remember watching Colin Kaepernick at the University of Nevada and he was one of the best runners I have seen in college football. However, most of the skills he has brought to the NFL have been with the run. He does have the ability to throw the football, but not to the capability of an Alex Smith. The proof is in the statistics because in the last two games, Kaepernick has not thrown one offensive touchdown. But, he does have five rushing touchdowns to go with his three total touchdowns. I will talk about later why I think the 49ers would win this game with Alex Smith under center. The key for this Patriots’ defense is to force the young quarterback to stay in the pocket and rush his throws. That could lead to interceptions that would give Brady and the offense a short field to work with.
2. Be Aware of Aldon: Last week, I profiled one of the leading candidates for defensive player of the year in J.J Watt. It is only fitting that I talk about the best defensive player on the NFC side is linebacker Aldon Smith. The second year linebacker from Missouri is the league leader in sacks with 19.5. He is on the verge of breaking the old single-season sack record by Michael Strahan. Last week, the Patriots had to look out for a player on the defensive line, but Smith is a pure pass rusher. Smith has a sack in every game but three this year (Minnesota, Buffalo, NY Jets). Smith is only a small part of the defense that has 32 sacks this year and is 2nd in both rushing and passing yards allowed. Keep an eye also on linebacker Navorro Bowman who has 116 tackles and will likely be the player that watches Aaron Hernandez down the field.
3. Vote Gore For Running Back: The key for the Patriots to win this game is they are going to have match the 49ers in terms of their physicality. To do that, they have to stop another solid running back this week in Frank Gore. Gore is 10th in the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns. He averages over five yards per carry in San Francisco’s wins, but only three and a half yards per carry in their losses. Gore has the ability to rack up the yards primarily because he runs behind an offensive line that gives new meaning to the word jumbo. However, the Patriots can match that with a player like Vince Wilfork on the defensive side. Whichever side wins the battle of the trenches will most likely be the one that prevails Sunday Night.
In the first key, I talked about how I thought San Francisco had a better chance to win this game with Alex Smith at quarterback. The reason for that is Smith completes 70% of his passes and has only five interceptions. He is like this generation’s Chad Pennington. When you are playing against the Patriots, you have a better chance to beat them by playing turnover-free football. Now, Kaepernick only has one interception and two fumbles this year in five games. However, I expect the Patriots to force two turnovers in this one via the interception that changes the course of this game. If you force him into staying in the pocket, interceptions will happen. Give me the Pats and their running game and two touchdowns from Brady to get the win. By the way, it will be nice to see Randy Moss back in Foxboro this weekend.
PATRIOTS 30 49ERS 21