For the second week in a row, the New England Patriots will host one of the league's top teams in prime time as the San Francisco 49ers head to Gillette Stadium for what should be another great edition of Sunday Night Football.
The Patriots (10-3) look nearly omnipotent after their thrashing of the Houston Texans last Monday night. In what should have been a great, competitive game, Bill Belichick and Co. completely outclassed their rivals from the AFC South and sent them home with their tails between their legs. It's hard to stop a team that has paired its always solid passing offense with a quality rushing attack and a defense that is no longer a liability.
The 49ers (9-3-1) aren't slouches either and will look to prove that they're in a whole different stratosphere than the Texans. Colin Kaepernick has become the latest dual-threat quarterback in the NFL since taking over for Alex Smith and has redefined the way teams have to prepare for the 49ers. Of course, the real story is the defense, which is allowing an NFL-best 14.2 points per game.
It's strength on strength on Sunday night. So, who comes away with a win?
Key Storyline No. 1: Can Defense Still Win Championships?
The 49ers still hope this is the case, but recent history shows that it might not be true. The last three Super Bowl champions—New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints—all had pretty atrocious defenses (although it could be argued that all "turned it on" at the right time). It's been over a decade since a team (namely, the Baltimore Ravens) won on elite defense alone.
A decade later, the 49ers are trying to recapture that kind of magic after switching quarterbacks midseason. Kaepernick, in his first year as a starter, isn't going to put up 300 yards of passing every game, but he's got a better arm than Alex Smith, and his ability to bring safeties closer to the line of scrimmage against his run ability makes him a more dynamic threat.
If the 49ers are going to win a title this year, they'll need to do so on the back of their defense, and they'll need to do it by going through elite offenses like the one they're facing in New England. How the 49ers prove themselves tonight will foreshadow their chances in January.
Key Storyline No. 2: Is the Patriots Offense Unstoppable?
Of course, all that is easier said than done against a Patriots offense that doesn't have a whole lot of weaknesses.
For years, the Patriots offense was like a young boxer with one great punch. They KO'd all opponents with their huge left hook until just about everyone figured out how to stop that hook. For a couple of years, Belichick has been searching for a complementary punch and has found it in Stevan Ridley, whose contributions to the Patriots' running game have put them as the NFL's seventh-best running team.
An elite passing offense alongside a competent rushing attack is near-impossible to stop—as America saw against the Texans.
The question now: Is there still a blueprint to beating the Patriots? If not, will any team be able to write a new one before they take the Lombardi Trophy back to 1 Patriot Place?
Keys for the San Francisco 49ers
Offensively, the 49ers need to prove that Colin Kaepernick isn't just a "rich man's Tim Tebow." No, I'm not comparing the two levels of play—Kaepernick is a much better passer and has top-end speed that Tebow could only dream of. No, it's the scheme behind their play that is somewhat similar, enough to worry me against a team that shut Tebow down so convincingly in 2011.
Kaepernick thrives on being able to use his legs to gash opponents. Moreover, it's that threat that makes defensive backs creep up toward the line and allows the former Nevada quarterback the ability to use that strong arm to take the top off a defense.
At its core, it's still the same run-heavy methodology that Smith was operating under, but Kaepernick has become an important cog rather than a game manager.
To beat the Patriots, Kaepernick will have to prove that he can consistently win with his arm even if the Patriots are able to take his legs out of the game.
Defensively, there's nothing special in terms of scheme. The only way to really beat the Pats is to consistently win battles at the line of scrimmage and make sure receivers aren't getting free releases off the line. If defenses can disrupt timing on the outside and pressure Brady in the pocket, the cumulative effect will result in plenty of mistakes for the 49ers to capitalize on.
Keys for the New England Patriots
Of course, the Texans used that same methodology to try to beat the Patriots, and it looked doomed from the coin flip.
In today's NFL, it's becoming more and more evident that elite pass-rushers can't be stopped by offensive tackles. No, instead it's the quarterback who has taken the lead in eliminating the effect of a pass rush by sitting back and firing quicker passes. If any young passers are looking for a role model in this regard, they couldn't do much better than Brady, who put on a clinic last week.
If J.J. Watt was shut down so convincingly, the Patriots will hope they can do the same to Aldon and Justin Smith.
Defensively, the Patriots need to shut down Kaepernick's legs (as mentioned above), but more than that, they need to shut down Frank Gore. If the Pats can keep Gore under 100 yards (like they did to Arian Foster last week), it should be an easy win.
Bold Prediction: Tom Brady Passes for 300 Yards
Ultimately, I don't see Brady slowing down this week. Yes, Aldon Smith is a better pure pass-rusher than Watt (I give Watt the lead in overall play), and yes, the Niners have more healthy bodies to throw at the Patriots offensive line. So the Niners probably have a better chance than the Texans ever really had to pressure Brady.
That said, it shouldn't matter. When a passer is on (and make no mistake about it—Brady is dealing right now), the pass rush will always look a moment too late.
Brady continues that high level of play tonight and puts up a huge number on the league's second-ranked passing defense.
Player of the Game Prediction: Tom Brady
Obviously Brady is going to be the player of the game with that big number. How he gets it, however, will be equally as impressive.
Look for seven, eight or more receivers to get into the action, as Brady won't have time (or the desire) to go through elaborate progressions, and those receivers won't be running double-move routes down the field.
Overall, this should be another fantastic Sunday Night Football matchup, and the 49ers should set themselves up as viable contenders. Could this be a possible Super Bowl preview? Time will tell, but it's Tom Brady and Co. that will come out on top this time around.
Final Score Prediction: Patriots 34, 49ers 27
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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