Early on in the season, it appeared as if the 49ers were going to once again run away with the division. But in recent weeks, the Seattle Seahawks have been putting the pressure on San Francisco by winning four of their last five games.
Brady's Patriots are coming off their biggest win of the year against the 11-win Texans, even though it didn't seem like much of a contest by game's end.
The Pats jumped out to a 21-0 nothing lead at the end of the first half. However, I can guarantee things won't be the same in Week 15. For as good as New England is on offense, San Francisco is equally as good on defense. The No. 1 offense in the NFL against the No. 2 defense should not disappoint Sunday night.
Let's take a look at two must-win matchups for Jim Haurbaugh's club, as we are only two days away from kickoff.
When the 49ers Are On Defense: Aldon Smith vs. Nate Solder
It's rare that I highlight the same defensive player to weeks in a row because matchups do indeed change from week-to-week based on strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. However, outside linebacker Aldon Smith is on a quest to make NFL history, and his competition along the way is worth noting.
This week, Smith will take on one of the best young left tackles in all of football: Nate Solder. Solder was a first-round pick last year at No. 17 overall, and he hasn't disappointed along the way. As a rookie in 2011, he only surrendered four quarterback sacks and four quarterback hits while appearing in all 19 games for the Patriots.
Through 13 games this year, his numbers are similar. If he wants to outdo last season's numbers, though, he will have to tighten up his play down the stretch. His three sacks allowed currently tie him for the ninth-best mark in the NFL based on offensive tackles who have played at least 75 percent of their team's snaps for the season.
Despite the strong numbers, Smith knows exactly how many sacks he piled up against Solder the last time these two went head-to-head. No. 99 finished with three sacks against the former Colorado Buffalo; he will be out for No. 4 on Sunday Night Football.
That fourth sack would put him at 20.5 for the season, only 2.5 shy of breaking the NFL record.
Solder's toughest game this season came against Chris Clemons. Since joining the Seahawks, Clemons has put himself on the map as one of the best pass-rushing defensive ends the NFL has to offer, registering 31 sacks through 45 games.
Above is a great example of how No. 91 beat Solder on an inside spin move. Clemons starts on the outside of Solder pretending like he's going with the speed rush on the outside, but as soon as he gets the left tackle off balance, he quickly spins back to the inside.
The move to the inside allowed him to gain leverage up field, which, in turn, gave Solder two choices: He could either submit or get flagged for the hold. He chose to submit in hopes that Brady could get the ball off. Unfortunately for him, Brady hit the deck as soon as Clemons was close enough to pounce on him.
Smith and Clemons are similar rushers in the way they use their hands and speed to gain the upper hand. You can bet Smith watched some of Clemons' tape from this game to pick up on any type of advantage.
When the 49ers Are On Offense: 49ers' Backfield vs. Patriots Front Seven
On the road, in the cold, with an inexperienced starter under center, the best thing the 49ers could do against the Patriots is to ride running back Frank Gore.
The 49ers need to run the ball efficiently and effectively to shorten the game up. Limiting opportunities will help keep the score as close as possible.
However, running the ball with success against the Patriots' front seven is easier said than done. Currently, they are the eighth-best team in the NFL against the run. Not to mention, the Patriots are only allowing 3.9 yards per carry on the ground.
Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork have single-handedly figured out how to wreck opposing offenses this year. Both Spikes and Mayo are on pace to have career years in just about every statistical category, so it is worth noting they are the main reason why the Patriots' play against the run has improved.
With the linebackers playing so well, it's easy to see why many teams have had trouble double-team blocking Wilfork. Big No. 75 sets the tone up front and does a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage. At times, he is asked to simply take on blocks in effort to free up the linebacking corp behind him.
Between the two of them, Spikes and Mayo have a total of 164 solo tackles and 79 defensive stops. Mayo's 48 individual stops are the second-highest number of stops among 4-3 outside linebackers.
So, you may be wondering just how the 49ers will be able to take control on the ground. It first starts with not double-teaming Wilfork. As good as he is, you don't need too. Mike Iupati, Alex Boone and Jonathan Goodwin make up the best interior offensive line in the NFL. PFF has them graded out as the best guard, center, guard combination in the league.
Don't give up on the run either. Keep working the Patriots defense over, soften it up.
More than once, I've seen offensive coordinator Greg Roman give up on the run when the 49ers fell behind. Colin Kaepernick has less pass attempts ever than Brady does in his five Super Bowl appearances. Don't rely on Kap to win the game for you, no matter how well he has played at times.
This game will come down to who possesses the ball longer through the first three quarters. It will be a chess match and a dog fight all at the same time.
San Francisco needs at least one of these next two games to keep hold of the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC. If Harbaugh rides his biggest offensive weapon, the 49ers will give themselves the best chance possible to move to 10-3-1.