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49ers vs Patriots preview: Protecting the ball will be key if Colin Kaepernick, 49ers expect to keep up with Patriots

The 49ers travel to Foxboro to take on the red-hot New England Patriots. The Pats are fresh off their demolishing of the previously well-regarded Houston Texans. The 49ers have been listless as of late. We look at whether the offense can protect the ball and put up enough points on the Pats D to stay in this game.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers now embark on their season-defining road trip. The first stop on the two-leg trip is in suburban Boston to battle the New England Patriots. While the 49ers have looked unimpressive in their last two games, a loss to the Rams and a win over the Dolphins in which Miami hung around until the final minutes, the same cannot be said of the Patriots. They're on fire. Last weeks absolute domination of AFC frontrunner Houston was the latest in a long line of convincing wins for the Patriots, winners of seven straight. Needless to say, the 49ers have their hands full this Sunday evening.

The game is a dream matchup for the league. It features the best offense, in the Patriots, leading the league in yards, points and first downs, playing against the best defense. The 49ers rank 1st in points allowed and second in yards and first downs surrendered. It doesn't get much better than this.

The Patriots have clearly had less success against the better defenses they've played. This is relative, of course, as a down game for the Patriots offense is 23 points. Teams that have had success are Seattle and Arizona, both losses for the Patriots, and even the Miami Dolphins, two weeks ago in a 23-16 in Miami. The 49ers defense is a notch above all three of those teams, though the Seahawks' hard-nosed style best emulates what the Niners will bring.

Aldon Smith will be chasing Tom Brady and history on Sunday. He is currently 3 sacks behind Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. To combat this, last week against the Texans, Brady averaged a mere 2.27 seconds in snap-to-release time, one of the quickest single-game averages all season according to Pro Football Focus. While Houston's J.J. Watt was able to get some pressure the team only sacked Brady one time. Smith getting pressure will help to reverse this but the Patriots line is second in the NFL in Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate.

A surprising development this season is the Patriots run game. Long a passing-dominated team under Coach Bilechick and Tom Brady, the team has been more balanced this season. They actually rank third in the league in rushing attempts this season and 7th in yards. This is somewhat misleading though, as they're ranked 18th in yards per attempt. The 49ers run defense is one of the best around, and bringing the Patriots' yards per attempt down from their season average of 4.2 would make the team one-dimensional, greatly benefiting the 49ers' pass defense. The Patriots 20 rushing TDs leads the league.

The Niners' pass defense will have their work cut out for them against Brady and Co. It appears Rob Gronkowski will miss his 4th game in a row, a definite plus for the 49ers as no team in the league matches up well with Gronk. Wes Welker, on the other hand, will be playing and can cause problems for the 49ers. In Week 10, against the Rams, Carlos Rogers struggled against Danny Amendola (Welker Lite), surrendering 11 catches for 102 yards. Welker is second in the league in dropped passes. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, arguably the hardest-hitting safety combination can help Rogers immensely by putting a few licks on Welker early in the game.

One thing the 49ers have excelled at in pass coverage is not surrendering yards after the catch. Last week they gave up 16 YAC to receivers and tight ends. The receivers catch the ball, get tackled within a few yards or on the spot. Something's got to give, as Welker is one of the best in the League at running with the ball after the reception.

It's been noted that the Patriots are more balanced this season than in previous campaigns. That applies to their running attack on offense, but also to their much-improved defense. They come into the game surrendering the 12th fewest points per contest and have the largest point differential in the league with +198. The 49ers are second, well off the pace with +132. In my own attempt at creating an advanced statistic, I would like it noted that both teams have the same percentage of the combined points scored in their games with 63.2% (that's pts / pts + pts allowed....with the Pats holding a less than 1/10 of a percent advantage). This demonstrates that both are equally as dominant, but the 49ers do it more with defense leading to lower scoring affairs.

Where the Patriots have struggled this season is in yards allowed. The Patriots have given up some shockingly large numbers of yards. Both the Bills and Jets have gained over 400 yards in each of their two games against New England. By contrast, the 49ers allowed a combined 349 yards in the two games against those same opponents!

How does a team sit at 12th in the league in points allowed while ranking 26th in yards allowed? The Patriots are a league-leading +24 in turnover differential, +8 more than the second-ranked New York Giants. The key for them is forcing and recovering fumbles. Their interception total of 15 is respectable, coming in at 6th in the league. Their 19 fumbles recovered is well ahead of the rest of the pack and their linebackers are spearheading the charge. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have four forced fumbles each while Rob Ninkovich has five.

Protecting the ball will obviously be the key for the 49ers in this one. The 49ers come into the game ranking second in fewest turnovers committed with 12 on the year. Carrying this trend over against the Patriots will go a long way toward winning this game. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that a young quarterback making his 5th start would struggle in this respect. The team has committed three turnovers in the four games he's started, two of them by Kaepernick, including the game-turning, ill-fated pitch that led to the Rams only touchdown in their 16-13 victory in Week 13.

The 49ers can count on Michael Crabtree to continue his success. He's been great all season long, extending drives with clutch third-down receptions and generally wreaking havoc on defenses in the open field after receptions. The Patriots defense is 29th in passing yards allowed and the 49ers will need a big game from Crabtree, especially if Mario Manningham misses the game. Manningham is currently listed as doubtful.

Another weapon in the passing attack could be Vernon Davis. The word 'could' is key here, as Mr. Davis has been all but absent after a sizzling start. He has 3 catches for 19 yards over the last three games and has scored only once since Week 3. He played well against the Chicago Bears, another ball-hawking defense, and a return to relevance for this game, the stretch run of the season and playoffs would make the 49ers offense that much more dynamic.

Frank Gore and the running game will be up against a formidable foe this week in Vince Wilfork. He dominated the Texans offensive line, making four stops and swatting a ball out of Matt Schaub's hand for a forced fumble. How the 49ers' front fares against him will dictate whether or not Gore can get to the second level. The Patriots run defense comes into the game ranked 8th in the league in yards allowed and 7th in yards per attempt allowed. The Patriots did give up 162 yards on the ground to the Bills in Week 10 and nearing that number will help keep the pressure off of Colin Kaepernick.

This is clearly the biggest game of Colin Kaepernick's young career. He's had mixed results so far, but has played well and exceeded many expectations. His numbers so far are nearly a mirror of Alex Smith's with high completion percentage and few interceptions. Kapernick's legs could be a difference maker, but if there's a coach as craft as Jim Harbaugh, it's Bill Belichick, who's seen it all, and will have his team ready for the read-option and any other set the 49ers throw at them. Kaepernick also possess the arm strength to test the porous Pats' pass defense, but few weapons in the 49ers' arsenal have been able to exploit this. Delanie Walker had some success against the Saints, another defense that uses multiple schemes and trickery while surrendering tons of yards through the air.

If Manningham does indeed miss this game, perhaps rookie A.J. Jenkins will get to see more time. Both he and fellow rookie LaMichael James appear to be in the rotation now and both have the speed to break long plays. Both, however, will be in against a tough, fumble-happy defense and, being rookies, must be ever vigilant about protecting the football.

The 49ers offense is young, and explosive. This could play perfectly into the Patriots hands. Big opportunities vanish in the blink of an eye and New England has caused multiple turnovers in all but three of their games. Two of those three games are their two most recent contests, though.

Can the 49ers avoid turning the ball over? That's the big question, and it may be a big ask. While they managed to do it against the Bears, they also didn't have to take any risks, or could take as many as they liked, as Chicago was without Jay Cutler and more-or-less toothless on offense. That's not going to be the case against the Patriots. Whether or not the game turns into a shootout, Tom Brady and Pats' offense is going to string together a few drives in a row and inspire a bit of urgency in the 49ers. And that's when mistakes happen.

It's hard for me to pick against the 49ers, but I'm taking the Patriots to win this one. If the 49ers come out unscathed psychologically (unlike Houston) and battle-tested I'll be pleased with the outcome. Rarely is the room for moral victories for a title-contender in the NFL, but this may be one of the exceptions. Patriots 27, 49ers 20.

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