Following a 42-14 throttling of the AFC-rival Houston Texans, the New England Patriots have moved to 10-3 with a showdown against the 9-3-1 San Francisco 49ers on tap for Sunday. Here are the five most important things to watch for in this week's match-up at Gillette Stadium.
Linebacker spy to contain Colin Kaepernick's mobility?
Without a shadow of a doubt, Colin Kaepernick will be the most mobile of opposing quarterbacks that the Patriots have faced this season. On 46 attempts, San Francisco's first-year starter has accumulated over 350 rushing yards in just ten games played. Kaepernick will provide a much different challenge than would his more conservative counterpart, Alex Smith. While Smith would run an offense filled mainly with short and safe passes and a steady diet of runs with Frank Gore, Kaerpernick is a big-play threat with an ability to throw the ball downfield. I would expect the Patriots to use the traditional linebacker spy approach to help contain Kaepernick and prevent him from making plays in the run game.
Randy Moss' return to Foxboro... Part II
Regardless of the endless line of baggage that follows him around, Randy Moss remains one of the greatest wide receivers to ever play the sport of football. Who will ever forget his record-setting 23-touchdown season back in 2007? Not many across New England. After a year removed from the game, the 35-year-old veteran has returned this year for the 49ers. Though his role has definitely changed since arriving on the bay, seeing just 21 catches on 37 targets this season, he remains a huge threat in the passing game and still holds the ability to "take the top off the defense", as he'd put it.
Encore performance for the offensive line?
With the return of all-pro guard Logan Mankins, the Patriots' offensive line saw a stellar group performance on Monday night against Houston. New England was able to shut down one of the most dominant pass-rushers in the entire NFL, JJ Watt, holding him without a sack, tackle-for-loss or pass-deflected. The offensive line will be thrown right back into the fire this Sunday against the Niners when former Missouri Tiger Aldon Smith comes to Foxboro. Smith has already racked up 19.5 sacks so far this season and it will take another impressive blocking performance for the Patriots to contain him.
The largest part of the New England offense comes down the middle of the field with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez along with slot-man Wes Welker. However, the 49ers are one of the few teams in the NFL today who have a strong enough pair of safeties that can take away the middle of the field. Both Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are physical enough to help stop the run and able to play the pass over the middle. This will be one of the toughest tests of the season for Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense.
Mirage? Or is this team for real?
The Patriots' performance on Monday against the Texans was tremendously impressive, there's no denying that. The offense looks to be producing at an optimal level, even without the presence of all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, and even the much-maligned defensive secondary seems to have shown signs of improvement. In this writer's opinion, the Patriots look to be a far superior team today than they were at this point last season. It's impossible to predict how things will shake out in the AFC playoff race and any possible postseason success will be based upon their match-up, but as of today, the Patriots sure look to be in great shape as the season winds down.
For more New England Patriots coverage, visit our team blog, Pats Pulpit.