The San Francisco 49ers are heading towards Sunday night's matchup with the New England Patriots as underdogs as they travel to Massachusetts to take on the AFC Eastern Division leaders at Gillette Stadium.
By all accounts, the situation for San Francisco looks daunting. Despite similar records with both teams atop their respective divisions, the 49ers have a lot to be concerned with during their preparations for Sunday's game.
Traveling to the eastern time zone can put strain on any west coast team. In addition, the cold weather in Foxborough also may lead to difficulties. While San Francisco has been able to overcome the travel this season before, most notably their dominant win over the New York Jets in Week 4, they have yet to play in a cold weather scenario. Furthermore, the Jets are a far cry from the Patriots.
New England has an almost unequalled reign of being dominant down the stretch. Their last loss came in Week 6 while on the road against a surprisingly good Seattle Seahawks team playing at home. Since then, the Patriots have been able to master almost every team they have faced with their 23-16 win over the Miami Dolphins being the only close win. Even in 2011, the Patriots won their last eight regular season games.
On the other hand, the 49ers have not looked as impressive over the same span.
Both the tie and overtime loss to the St. Louis Rams in Weeks 10 and 13 respectively revealed a number of weaknesses. Despite an impressive Monday Night Football win over the Chicago Bears in Week 11 along with a tough road win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 12, there have been numerous questions raised about how San Francisco can match up with one of the league's best.
Despite all of the controversy and chatter surrounding head coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to bench quarterback Alex Smith and replace him with Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' passing offense still ranks 26th in the league. Even with the bolstered receiving core that San Francisco lacked in 2011, the passing game has left much to be desired.
Fortunately for San Francisco, the Patriots do not defend well against the pass. Currently, New England ranks 29th in pass defense. If the 49ers hope to put up touchdowns instead of field goals against New England, they will have to exploit this weakness in the Patriots secondary and do it often.
In addition, San Francisco can ill-afford to become one-dimensional, especially if they fall behind early. While New England's rushing defense is legitimate, the ability of 49ers running backs Frank Gore and the newly emerged LaMichael James can still make the Patriots respect the run, opening up plays down the field for the passing game. Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman will have to bring his best efforts here and the offensive line will also have to play its A-game.
Kicker David Akers will also have to move forward from his recent woes especially if the game is close during the latter half.
As far as stopping New England's offense is concerned, the 49ers will have to limit Tom Brady. Brady is going to make big plays without doubt. Limiting those opportunities and curbing the damage will be crucial to San Francisco's game plan. The Patriots' pass offense is fifth going into the game and figures to be a major factor.
As with any defensive game plan against the pass, the key issues will be if the 49ers can put significant pressure on Brady while he's in the pocket as well as providing excellent coverage in the secondary. Maybe linebacker Navorro Bowman will continue his dominant season and be an additional factor.
The 49ers also have to be ready for New England's running game.
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley recently surpassed 1,000 yards rushing and is averaging 4.5 yards each carry. While San Francisco's rush defense is still among the top in the league, they will be forced to respect both the run and the pass. Eliminating one of those elements will be critical in curbing New England's impressive offense.
Also, one cannot forget the coaching matchup between Harbaugh and Bill Belichick. Few will argue Belichick's genius on the field. The question will be whether or not Harbaugh can equal the task, or at least come close enough to let his best players on the field make plays and come away with an impressive win.
The 49ers have their hands full going into Week 15. The Patriots look to continue their second half surge and carry that momentum into the playoffs. For San Francisco, the NFC West title is still in doubt. If they wish to eliminate that doubt, the 49ers will have to play to their fullest potential, make plays, and execute a solid game plan.
Against an experienced and talented New England team, that will be no simple task.