We're seven Sunday nights away from Super Bowl XLVII, but tonight's showdown between the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers might just be an early preview of what's to come on February 3 in New Orleans.
Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh have their teams in excellent position for deep playoff runs, as New England wrapped up its ninth AFC East crown in 10 years two weeks ago while San Fran appears primed to capture its second consecutive NFC West title.
Both of these teams are well coached, but they couldn't be more different when it comes to playing style.
While the 49ers are in the middle of the pack offensively, the Patriots lead the league in scoring at 36.8 points per game.
On the other side of the ball, New England's young defense is starting to gel, but it's got nothing on San Fran's No. 1 scoring defense.
In a classic battle of offense vs. defense, let's take a look at the top matchups to watch in Sunday night's showdown.
Nate Solder, LT (Patriots) vs. Aldon Smith, LB (49ers)
During the 2011 NFL Draft, Patriots fans clamored for pass-rush help, but Bill Belichick had other plans up his hoodie's sleeves.
With the 17th overall pick, the Patriots selected 6'8" offensive tackle Nate Solder from Colorado to replace stable veteran Matt Light.
A year later, that selection is looking like a home run.
Solder has settled in nicely on Tom Brady's blind side, keeping his quarterback out of trouble and opening running lanes for fellow second-year pro Stevan Ridley.
However, the athletic Solder faces his toughest matchup of the year in yet another sophomore stud in pass-rushing extraordinaire, Aldon Smith.
The 6'4", 258-pounder has everything you want from an elite pass rusher and then some.
Blessed with freakish length, incredible quickness and a wide array of moves, the former Missouri Tiger has established himself as the No. 1 threat on San Francisco's talented defense.
The 49ers like to move Smith all around the defense, but he'll often be matchup up against Solder—who was taken 10 spots after Smith.
If there's one matchup that will dictate the winner of this game, it has to be Solder vs. Smith.
Jerod Mayo, LB (Patriots) vs. Frank Gore, RB (49ers)
Here's a case of two guys who just let their play do the talking.
Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo entered the league as the 10th overall pick in 2008 and has developed into one of the league's better all-around defenders.
Once regarded as just a tackling machine, Mayo has become more of a playmaker now that the Patriots have transitioned to a 4-3 defense.
Utilizing his speed and instincts, the fifth-year pro has racked up 125 tackles, 3.0 sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery through 13 games.
The Patriots will need Mayo to have another big game tonight as Frank Gore and the San Francisco ground game come to Foxborough.
An eight-year veteran out of Miami, Gore is one of the NFL's perennially under-appreciated stars.
Though he isn't as explosive as he was earlier in his career, Gore is a steady back who can play all three downs and grinds out tough yards after contact.
Gore has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth time in his career and benefits from running behind the league's best offensive line.
If the 49ers hope to take down Brady and the Pats, they'll need Gore to pound the rock and keep the Patriots' dangerous offense on the sideline.
Aaron Hernandez, TE (Patriots) vs. Dashon Goldson, S (49ers)
With Rob Gronkowski out of the lineup with a broken forearm, Aaron Hernandez might just be the deadliest weapon on the Patriots' offense.
The third-year pro missed most of the first half of the season with a high ankle sprain, but has made a valiant return to the lineup.
In last week's 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football, Hernandez snagged eight catches for 58 yards and two scores.
Because of his elite athleticism and penchant for picking up yards after the catch, the former Florida Gator is a near impossible matchup for any one defensive player.
While the 49ers could opt to put Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman on Hernandez, the task might fall on the shoulders of safety Dashon Goldson.
The 6'2", 200-pounder hits like a missile and has decent coverage skills as evidenced by his 14 career interceptions.
Goldson probably won't be asked to take on Hernandez one-on-one all the time, but his combination of size and speed may be the only way to slow down New England's versatile tight end.
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