SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. The 49ers lead the all-time series, 8-4. The last meeting came in New England in December 2012, when Jim Harbaugh's 49ers took care of business with a 41-34 win. That contest snapped a three-game Patriots winning streak. Tom Brady has never played in his native Bay Area; he missed New England's 2008 victory at Candlestick Park with a torn ACL. The 49ers dominated New England in the rare interconference battles, winning six straight from 1980 to 1995.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
New England's reputation as a pass-first offense has been well-earned. But the Patriots have balanced things out a bit this season with LeGarrette Blount, who has topped 20 carries five times. With the 49ers allowing 5.1 yards per carry and 180.4 per game, Josh McDaniels certainly will look to give Blount a chance to get things going early.
That will only open things up through the air for Tom Brady, including the possibility that Martellus Bennett will be an even greater focal point with the lung injury to Rob Gronkowski. The play-action game will help out a New England line that has struggled to protect consistently, although San Francisco is in the bottom third of the league in sacks per pass play. If the offensive line plays its role, New England should be able to run and throw efficiently.
Defensively the Patriots are trying to clean up a lot of areas. The initial goal, as always, will be to keep Carlos Hyde and the 49ers' run game in check. Hyde is getting back to health and averaging just 3.6 yards a carry.
Of course, part of the Patriots' front seven's job in both the run and the pass is dealing with Colin Kaepernick's ability as a runner. The once-again San Francisco starter is averaging 7.1 yards per carry and has been an active force on the ground since his return to the lineup. That means Rob Ninkovich and the rest of the New England edge players will once again be utilizing a controlled rush, much as they have in recent weeks against Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor.
The New England back end may have the most to prove, even against a suspect passing attack. The Patriots have played a lot of soft zone coverages of late. There is no reason to believe the approach will be abandoned against Chip Kelly's unique offense, though Devin McCourty and company will strive for much better execution and communication. The players must play stout up front against Kelly's various zone reads and unique option looks. In coverage, dealing with Jeremy Kerley in the slot is key, but Torrey Smith remains a dangerous deep threat despite his limited success this fall.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Patriots TE Martellus Bennett vs. 49ers FS Eric Reid. Normally Reid would have to deal with Rob Gronkowski and Bennett, but the former's injury led to him staying home. That means Bennett may have an even bigger role on offense, coming off a seven-catch, 102-yard performance. Reid is athletic and has the size to match up with opposing tight ends like Bennett, but Tom Brady has a knack for finding the right matchups and using his versatile weapons.
--Patriots DE Trey Flowers vs. 49ers LT Joe Staley. Staley has been one of the most consistent tackles in the game in his decade in San Francisco. Flowers is coming on strong in his second season, having notched two sacks in each of the last two games. The young player has earned increased reps on the edge, but this matchup with the Pro Bowl veteran Staley will be both a learning experience and an opportunity to once again prove his developing abilities.
Patriots RB Dion Lewis. The receiving back seems poised to make his return after opening the season on PUP recovering from a torn ACL suffered last November. Lewis was inactive on Sunday night after being added to the roster and likely will get limited reps as he works into game action. Still, given his impact as both a runner and receiver early last season, his potential addition to the offense only adds another element to Tom Brady's arsenal.
Patriots QB Tom Brady threw for 443 yards in the last meeting. In the past five games, he has 1,635 pass yards (327 per game) with 12 TDs and one interception. He leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.9) and passer rating (125.5).
Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount had three rushing TDs last week and leads the NFL with 12. He has scored on the ground in five straight games.
Patriots DE Trey Flowers has two sacks in each of the past two games.
49ers QB Colin Kaepernick threw four TD passes the last time these teams met.
49ers LB Gerald Hodges has 24 tackles, two interceptions and a sack in the past three games.
The Patriots were cruising along until they were stonewalled by Seattle last Sunday. They should have a much easier time against this NFC West club, especially with Brady returning home for the first time in his career.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 31-13.