This Sunday night the San Francisco 49ers will have to endure their greatest test of the season as they travel to take on the New England Patriots. With a win against the Patriots the 49ers will clinch the NFC west division and at least clinch a wildcard spot for the playoffs. What’s even more important with a victory, is the knowledge that they can afford to rest some of their key players heading into the playoffs. It’s probably not what fans want to hear, but having a rejuvenated and healthy team for the playoffs is vastly more important than the outcome of the final two games if they have locked up a playoff birth.
However, the Patriots have a lot to say about how the game will transgress. Right now the Patriots are arguably the best team in the league, and are playing at such a high level that many are predicting another Super Bowl Championship. Coming into the game against the 49ers, the Patriots have won their last seven straight games. And of those seven games, they have destroyed four teams by 28 points or more. And not just any teams either, just last week they beat the 11-2, playoff bound Houston Texans by 28. They have also beaten the fighting for a playoff birth New York Jets by 30, the Indianapolis Colts by 35, and the St. Louis Rams by 38. And the Rams just beat the 49ers a couple of weeks ago.
The Patriots are number one in the league in points per game with just over 36. They are fifth in the league in passing yards per game with almost 286. And they are seventh in the league in rushing yards per game with almost 140. Oh, they also have this one guy named Tom Brady that’s pretty good in his own right. Currently Brady has the leagues highest quarterback rating, and has only thrown four interceptions to his 29 touchdowns. And heaven forbid if he has the ball in his hands with under two minutes to go and wants to score another touchdown.
And when Brady isn’t being brilliant with the passing game, the Patriots have one of the best rushers in the league to fall back on. Running back Stevan Ridley is ranked seventh in the league in rushing yards per game and has proven himself to be a running back capable of taking on a lot of carries. Overall, the Patriots have probably the most well rounded team in the league. And they might get superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski back to play the 49ers, as if San Francisco needed more to overcome.
So how do the 49ers beat the Patriots? First and foremost, they have to over achieve on defense again, though it is not something that the 49ers aren’t used to doing. Tom Brady is a master manipulator when running the Patriots offense, the linebackers and defensive backs for the 49ers cannot cheat routes or fall for any pump fakes if they are to be successful. The defensive line has to be assertive in getting to Brady, rush the passer hard but don’t over run the quarterback, as Brady is possibly even more dangerous when he steps up in the pocket to throw the ball. Rattling Brady is probably out of the question, but hurrying his decision making is a very doable task.
Offensively the 49ers have to rededicate themselves to the running game. The wild cat option offense has been working for them, but to be effective against the Patriots they need to create a running scheme revolving around Frank Gore. Their switch to their new option offense has limited his avenues of production. He needs to get the ball with his specific running style in play. The 49ers also need to involve tight end Vernon Davis in the offensive scheme. He has been a forgotten man for the better part of the season, and he is too talented not to implement his skills into this much-needed contest. He has big play abilities and his touches allows the offense to become multi dimensional. Lastly, the 49ers cannot under any circumstances get into a passing shootout with the Patriots. There is no doubt that the Patriots are going to throw the ball a lot, and it’s when they take leads, that teams feel like they need to resort to throwing the ball just as much. This strategy can work, like last year when the 49ers shot it out with the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs, but the success rate is statistically not very high.
In the end, the 49ers have a mountain of evidence supporting a Patriots win to overcome, but they have come through in big moments before. And with the added bonus of a playoff birth for the win, nothing is out of the question.
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