When the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots clash on Sunday night, this will truly be a Super Bowl preview. Barring a major injury to key personnel on either side, these teams represent the best of their respective conferences.
The New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons have had their moments this season, but the 49ers are the class of the NFC.
Likewise, the Patriots stand head and shoulders above the rest of the AFC. They blew out he Houston Texans on Monday night and knocked off Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Week 5.
They have won seven in a row and are 5-1 at home. As they move closer to locking up home-field advantage through the playoffs, that will be key.
Are the Broncos a better team now than they were on October 7 when they fell 31-21 to the Patriots? Perhaps they are, but they still don't have the running game to pound New England.
Willis McGahee—the team's leading rusher—is out for the season, and Knowshon Moreno's durability and production are always a question mark. As good as the Broncos' defense has been (fourth in yards allowed and points against), this is perhaps the most balanced Patriots attack in the Tom Brady era.
They aren't just throwing the ball effectively, they are running it well too. They are averaging 139 yards per game and have already run the ball 434 times. In 2011, they ran it a total of 438 times, but they only averaged 110 yards per game.
This production has allowed the team to absorb the losses of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the passing game.
The Broncos will be no match for that balance if the teams meet in the playoffs—especially if the game is at Foxboro Stadium.
As for the Niners and the NFC, the Falcons have proven lately that they aren't elite. Beating the Giants on Sunday could could change that perception. However, this team's defense has some serious questions to answer after giving up 30 points to the Carolina Panthers.
The Packers can't consistently protect Aaron Rodgers. Against teams like the Giants and the Niners—two likely playoff foes—they can't hope to win.
The Giants are the Niners' biggest threat. They seemingly have their number, but they haven't beaten them with Colin Kaepernick under center. I wasn't a fan of benching Alex Smith, but Kaepernick is a tougher matchup for the Giants.
New York has struggled mightily against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins this season. Part of the reason is RGIII's ability to step up and throw or run through the holes in the defensive line—even when Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul get pressure on the edge.
Griffin then has the arm to make the Giants' secondary pay down the field. The Niners have the run game as well, much like the Redskins have with Alfred Morris, who is having an exceptional year.
Kaepernick can have the same type of effect against the Giants. In their previous matchup this season, Alex Smith threw three interceptions and the Niners converted on only four-of-14 third-down situations.
That led to a tired defense that was pounded for an unheard of 149 yards on the ground.
With Kaepernick at quarterback, the Niners can change a lot of that and beat the Giants in a rematch.
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