The San Francisco 49ers travel east Sunday night to face the New England Patriots in a potential Super Bowl preview. The 49ers have the best point differential in the NFC at plus-132, and the Patriots lead all of football with an impressive plus-198 combined scoring margin over their opponents this season.
The 49ers have the best defensive personnel in the league to match the high-powered Patriots offensive attack. They also have the talent on the offensive side of the ball needed to pull off the upset over the Patriots on Sunday Night Football.
However, it takes more than talent to beat the well-coached Patriots. In order to beat them, the 49ers will have to avoid turnovers at all costs, limit the Patriots' offensive possessions by moving the ball on the Patriots' vulnerable defense in order to control the clock, mix up their coverages against quarterback Tom Brady and get pressure using a four-man pass rush.
The first thing the 49ers must do is secure the football. The Patriots defense plays a bend-but-don't-break style that relies on turnovers to get the ball back to Brady and their high-octane offense. They are just 26th in yards allowed, but 11th in points allowed because they've forced 34 turnovers, second-best in the league.
They are very aggressive at stripping the ball out from the quarterback when they manage to get pressure, and they also will pop the ball loose from running backs and receivers. The Patriots also try to bait opposing quarterbacks into interceptions by disguising their coverages.
If the 49ers turn the ball over, they'll have almost no chance of beating the Patriots on the road. The 49ers have done a good job of securing the football this season, as they are tied for first in the NFC with only 12 giveaways.
However, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick cost the 49ers big time in their loss two weeks ago in St. Louis by committing an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone and then by fumbling away a pitch attempt to give the Rams their lone touchdown.
If the 49ers don't turn the ball over, they should be able to move the ball up and down the field all day against the Patriots' much-maligned defense. The Patriots defense has played better since they traded for cornerback Aqib Talib four weeks ago, but they still have several holes that the 49ers can exploit.
Slot receiver Michael Crabtree is a mismatch for Patriots slot corner Kyle Arrington, and the middle of the field should be wide open for running back Frank Gore and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Patriots linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes are both stiff and slow-footed in coverage, so the 49ers should be able to attack them using play-action passes.
Led by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Spikes, the Patriots run defense is much better than their passing defense. They are seventh in the league in yards allowed per carry. However, the 49ers are second in the league in yards per carry, so they should be able to have some measure of success running the ball.
Securing the football, exploiting the middle of the Patriots defense in the passing game and running the ball effectively will allow the 49ers to move the ball and control the clock, which will limit Brady's possessions.
Even without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offense has remained the best in the league this season. They're averaging a league-leading 425.7 yards and 36.3 points per game. The key to slowing them down is limiting their possessions. Even against a great defense like the 49ers, the Patriots offense is eventually going to have success.
The Texans defense forced the Patriots into five punts and an interception on Monday night. However, their offense failed to control the ball, so the Patriots had 12 possessions. On their other six possessions, the Patriots offense marched down and scored touchdowns.
The 49ers defense has the ability to slow down the Patriots offense in spurts, but not over 12 possessions. Thus, the 49ers offense will be its best defense by moving the ball, controlling the clock and keeping Brady on the sidelines.
When the Patriots do have the ball, Brady wants the opposition to blitz because his offensive line is very good and his receivers all have the short-area quickness needed to get open fast. The Patriots get the ball out quickly, and Brady reads blitzes and coverages better than any quarterback in the league. Blitzing is not the solution to slowing down this offense.
The 49ers have an excellent pass rush led by defensive end/outside linebackers Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (5.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Justin Smith (three sacks). The 49ers will have to get pressure by rushing just four. They can attempt to confuse the Patriots with stunts and by disguising which four players are coming after Brady, but blitzing more than a few times is a fools errand.
Alas, even by disguising which rushers are coming and what coverage the back-end guys will play, the Patriots offense is so good that it's going to be able to move the ball and score points, even against the 49ers vaunted defense.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are arguably the two most athletic linebackers in football, and Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are good safeties, but that group is still going to be at a disadvantage against the quickness of tight end Aaron Hernandez, slot receiver Wes Welker and running backs Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen.
The key to slowing down this attack is to play tight coverage and suffocate the Patriots' precise, horizontal passing game by daring them to throw deep. The Texans eventually switched to this approach on Monday night, but by that time, it was far too late. The Patriots eventually blew the top off of the suffocating Texans scheme with a long bomb to Donte Stallworth, but the 49ers should still dare Brady to throw deep because that remains his biggest weakness.
In the Super Bowl last season, the Giants were able to hold the Patriots to 17 points by winning the turnover battle, controlling the time of possession (37 minutes to 23) and consistently pressuring Brady with mostly a four-man rush.
The 49ers clearly have the talent to follow the Giants' blueprint from the Super Bowl and defeat the Patriots on Sunday night. The question is whether that talent can play mistake-free football in order to pull off the upset in the battle of the NFL's two best teams.