Three storylines to watch this Sunday against the 49ers (8:20 p.m., NBC):
One more test
The Patriots passed their first late-season test against the Houston Texans with flying colors, but things won’t get any easier Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are the last threat to prevent the Patriots from earning a bye in the AFC (apologies to the Jaguars and Dolphins). It’s pretty clear that the Patriots have that No. 1 seed on their radar, and they’ll get a chance to prove it even further Sunday night. It’ll be New England’s offense against San Fran’s defense, but the biggest mismatch could be on the sidelines. Not to take anything away from Jim Harbaugh, but he’s no Bill Belichick. Neither was Houston’s Gary Kubiak, clearly.
Grind it out game
While the Texans boasted a strong overall defense, they had their issues defending the pass against elite quarterbacks this season – including Tom Brady. But San Francisco has the second-ranked pass defense in the NFL, giving up an average of just 184.7 yards per game. They limited Matthew Stafford (230 yards), Drew Brees (267 yards), and Eli Manning (167 yards) through the air, and will look to do the same against Brady. This could very well be a “ground and pound” game for both sides, as San Fran looks to feature their bruising running back, Frank Gore, while the Patriots have their own running back weapons in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Brady should still get his – after all, he is Tom Brady – but it would be somewhat of a surprise to see New England air out the ball like they have.
This could mess with Niners
It’s safe to say that replacing an injured Drew Bledsoe with Tom Brady and keeping him as a starter was the right move. But 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is still wondering if sticking with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith is the right decision in the long run. Kaepernick has been up and down as starter, but is certainly explosive at times. He’s a mobile quarterback with a cannon – a rare combination. But expect Belichick and the Pats D to throw some different looks his way. A rough night for him could lead to more Kaepernick-Smith debate in San Francisco – quite the distraction around this time.