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Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Niners

12.15.12 at 6:09 pm ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Patriots-Niners game:

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Left tackle Nate Solder against edge rusher Aldon Smith: The matchup that’€™s really going to tell the story of the game. Smith is three sacks away from tying the league’€™s single-season sack record of 22.5 (set by Michael Strahan), and is a pass-rushing demon off the edge. The New England offensive line has allowed just 20 sacks on the season, and Solder continues to have a very good season as the chief protector of Tom Brady‘€™s blind side (per pro Football Focus, he has yielded just three sacks and five quarterback hits in 1,003 offensive snaps — the most offensive snaps on the roster). The two met in college (when Solder was at Colorado and Smith was at Mizzou) and Smith came away with three sacks at Solder’€™s expense. One important thing to remember — Smith has had three games this season where he’€™s been held without a sack, and two of those were losses for the Niners. If Solder and the Patriots hold Smith sackless, it’€™ll be a good first step on the way to a win. (That stat also goes the other way — as Jason Cole of Yahoo! notes, in the six games the Patriots have won by more than 10 points, Brady has been sacked only three times. In the other seven games, the Patriots are 4-3 and Brady has been sacked 17 times.)

2. Running back Stevan Ridley against linebacker Patrick Willis: If the Patriots want to run the ball, they’€™re going to have to do it against one of the best run defenses in the league. The Niners are tough and physical up the middle, and Willis is a tackling machine. (Willis and defensive lineman Justin Smith form the nucleus of the San Francisco run defense in much the same fashion that the Patriots rely on Vince Wilfork and Brandon Spikes to slow down opposing running backs.) One thing we did take away from last Monday’€™s game was that the Patriots were able to move the ball consistently against an elite run defense in Houston — the Texans are tied for second in the league with the Niners when it comes to stopping the run at 90.8 yards per game. However, in that one, Ridley had 72 yards, and the Patriots had 130 rushing yards as a team. New England would gladly take another 100-plus yards on the ground against a talented defense Sunday night.

3. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick against the New England defense: We detailed the Niners’€™ use of the pistol here, and one of the keys to stopping it is slowing down Kaepernick when he gets the ball in this set. Don’€™t let him get to the outside with a chance to turn the corner, because his speed will really burn you. The guys who are on the edges — Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Justin Francis and Trevor Scott — need to make sure he stays inside, where Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Wilfork will ostensibly be waiting for him. If you can snuff out the options the Niners use out of the pistol — usually either a play-fake to the running back or a quarterback keeper off tackle — it’€™ll go a long way toward making San Francisco one-dimensional.

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’€™ fans need to know: While Willis and Aldon Smith get the bulk of the press when talking about the San Francisco defense, NaVorro Bowman is one of the best in the league alongside Willis. Stout against the run and competitive in pass coverage, the 6-foot, 242-pound inside linebacker is an excellent complementary piece of San Francisco’€™s strong front seven. He has 116 tackles, two sacks and an interception this season.

5. By the numbers (tie, both via Nuggetpalooza): The 49ers have rushed 40 times for 314 yards in the 4th quarter of close games this season (i.e. the score is within seven points either way). That’€™s an average of 7.9 yards per carry and is on track to be the highest such average for any team in the 21 seasons that they’€™ve tracked the stat.

The Patriots have forced 27 fumbles this season, which not only leads the league but is also already the third-most in the 19 seasons that they’€™ve tracked the stat. Only the 2010 Giants (30) and the 1999 Eagles (28) had more forced fumbles. And there are still three games to go.

6. Quote from an opposing scout regarding this Sunday: ‘€œSan Francisco will struggle to score as many points as New England. If I’€™m the Niners, I try to slow game down with my style of play — a deliberate pace. Slow the game down and keep Tom Brady and that offense off the field for as long as possible. Limiting New England’€™s offensive possessions will be key for San Francisco.’€ — for more from that scout on this matchup, CLICK HERE.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about’€¦.. Aldon Smith. It’€™s impossible to overstate how much of a difference-maker he can be coming off the edge. Look for the Patriots to give Solder as much help as possible with extra tight ends like Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells. There’€™s also a belief that you can run at him (for more on that, check out this scouting report on the Niners), which will likely help slow him down. Then, there’€™s also the possibility of screen plays and draws in an attempt to keep him off balance. Anything to stop him from getting a head of steam and getting after the quarterback.

8. Niners fans should be worried about’€¦. falling behind early. One of the reasons the Patriots were able to crush the Texans last Monday was because they jumped to an early lead, took advantage of Houston mistakes right out of the gate and controlled the tempo. New England was in command from the start, while the Texans struggled to play from behind. The Patriots’€™ offense can be overwhelming at times, and that, combined with New England playing at home in prime time, can be a real challenge for a relatively young team like San Francisco. The Niners have to maintain their composure early, particularly if the Patriots get out to a quick lead.

9. One more thing: We only do three matchups, but truth be told, it’€™ll strength against strength all over the field on Sunday night. Up front, the Logan Mankins-Justin Smith battle will be a contest between two of the best at their positions, while Chandler Jones against Joe Staley also promises to be a classic matchup between two terrific players. And we haven’€™t even gotten to Wes Welker against Carlos Rogers. Just tremendous individual matchups all over the place. And did we mention that it’€™s the league’€™s highest-scoring offense against the league’€™s stingiest defense?

10. Prediction:

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