Don’t let the headline fool you: I want the 49ers to win on Sunday. I want Colin Kaepernick to put the Kaepernick vs. Smith debate to bed forever with a dazzling performance against the best team in the AFC. However, this is December and this is when the New England Patriots shine. Tom Brady’s execution against the Houston Texans was sublime and Bill Belichick simply knows how to take away a team’s greatest strengths and exploit its greatest weaknesses.
The 49ers are a top-three team in the NFC, which is the stronger of the two conferences, but New England showed on Monday Night Football that it is awfully tough at home and can get yards in big chunks—regardless of how good a defense it faces. The 49ers have a very good defense and the game will be close, probably within a touchdown, but in the end the Chowds will be saying, “Wicked good win, wicked good win.”
Can the 49ers win this possible Super Bowl XVII preview? Absolutely. However, the issues that they have as a team and that they have struggled with over the last four or five weeks can really be exploited by the Patriots. If 49er fans are honest with themselves, the seven- or eight-point spread for this game is probably about right.
So, without further ado, let’s look at all the anxieties 49er fans should have about the Week 15 showdown with the Patriots.
The 49ers' offensive line has had penalties in critical moments over the last 4 weeks
Penalties for the 49ers have been a major issue over the last couple of weeks. They are the fifth most penalized team in the NFL and the penalties always seem to come at really bad times on offense.
In Weeks 13 and 14, the 49ers were been penalized 14 times for 110 yards. While the yardage is not atrocious, there have been far too many 1st-and-15s to overcome by the offense.
In the NFL it is difficult to beat a good team if you beat yourself, so if the trend continues the 49ers will struggle.
The 49ers have not been great on offense in the first half, regardless of who has been at quarterback.
Sunday’s 6-3 halftime score against the Miami Dolphins was a microcosm of how the offense has looked this year in the first half. It seems to take time to figure out the other team and to wear down the opponent with the rushing game to take over in the second half.
This works against most teams, but against Tom Brady, who has had hot starts in many games this season, it may create a hole that the 49ers can’t get out of.
One of the great advantages the 49ers have on defense is that they do not have to change up defensive personnel because their linebackers are so gifted athletically. However, this can also be a hindrance because they are susceptible to fatigue.
The Patriots run an excellent hurry up offense and I expect them to try to wear out the 49er front seven with an up-tempo approach and an improved running game. The 49er defense may be able to hold the Patriots to field goals early on, but if the 49ers are cold and tired in the fourth quarter, Brady and company may be able to run out the clock.
The forecast high for Sunday in Foxboro is 36 degrees and a 40 percent chance of snow with a light wind. The low is forecast for 35 degrees, so it is safe to say it will be cold at game time.
The 49ers have not played a cold weather game all year and this will make a difference. Of the 49ers’ road games in 2012, they have either been in a dome (Minnesota, Arizona, St. Louis, New Orleans) or in good weather (Green Bay and New York Jets).
NFL players are superb athletes, but they are human beings and will be affected by the cold.
Initially this may be a head-scratcher, but the 49ers struggled to run the ball consistently against the Dolphins. The one thing that Bill Belichick has done in his tenure in New England is take away his opponent’s best feature and make it uncomfortable.
This Patriot defense is not as bad as last year’s and will force Colin Kaepernick to beat them when they know he is going to throw. That is too tall an order for either quarterback on the San Francisco roster.
The 49ers were only 2-for-10 on third down against Miami with one of those coming in the red zone in the second quarter.
On 3rd-and-1 at the Dolphins’ 11-yard line, Frank Gore was stuffed in the backfield for a loss.
In order to beat a team like New England in Foxboro, these are the types of conversions the 49ers have to make every time. Since they have not shown consistency on third down in the Harbaugh era, it is reasonable to assume they will struggle Sunday night.
Colin Kaepernick has a cannon and has shown a natural affinity for the deep ball.
He throws a good deep out and his short slants are quick and accurate. However, he has struggled to throw in the middle of the field in the intermediate passing game. Perhaps this explains why Michael Crabtree, and not Vernon Davis, has flourished with Kaepernick at quarterback.
Since I anticipate the New England linebackers to be up for run coverage and the safeties back to prevent the home run, the intermediate passing game is critical for the 49ers to win. Unless Kaepernick has a breakout game in this area, they will struggle for offensive consistency.
The formula for beating the Patriots over the last five years or so has been getting a consistent pass rush with four down linemen. Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Isaac Sopoaga have done a great job of rushing the passer this year.
Aldon Smith has a legitimate shot of breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record. However, can they pressure Tom Brady without having to blitz? They harassed Ryan Tannehill in Week 14, but they were going against a banged-up offensive line without Jake Long.
They will have a tougher task in New England. If they have to blitz, Brady will eat them up.