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NFL Preview - San Francisco (9-3-1) at New England (10-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Despite having already clinched their division, the New England Patriots never took their foot off the gas against the AFC's current top seed in primetime this past Monday.
The lights will be on the Patriots again this Sunday night when they try to extend their December winning streak against another playoff contender in the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers.
A blueprint of NFL success over the past 18 years, the Patriots clinched their third straight AFC East title and 10th in the last 12 seasons with a win at Miami on Dec. 2. They then turned their sights on the top seed in the conference and easily routed the Houston Texans 42-14 on Monday night.
New England's seventh straight win improved the club to 10-3 and has it second overall in the conference, now one game back of the Texans.
Tom Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdown passes without turning the ball over, hitting tight end Aaron Hernandez eight times for 58 yards with two scores. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd added seven catches for 89 yards with a touchdown and recovered a fumble in the end zone for another score, while Donte Stallworth hauled in a 63-yard scoring pass after re-signing with the team the previous Monday.
However, Stallworth suffered an ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve.
New England's 26th-ranked defense also had a big game, holding Houston to just 14 points. The Texans came into the game averaging 29.3 points per game.
"We got good contributions from everybody tonight," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who moved past Dan Reeves for seventh place all-time in wins with the 202nd of his coaching career. "We made some key third downs, got some pressure on their quarterback and had guys step up in all three areas of the game. We got good play from everybody tonight."
The Patriots won their 13th straight game in December, a streak that began on Dec. 13, 2009 and is tied with the Dallas Cowboys (1968-72) for the second- longest in the month in NFL history. The San Diego Chargers set the record with 18 straight regular-season wins in December from 2006-09.
The 49ers extended their own impressive streak last Sunday, following up an overtime loss in St. Louis with a 27-13 home victory over the Dolphins. That outcome improved San Francisco to 6-0 under head coach Jim Harbaugh following a loss.
The Niners used their ground game to roll past the Dolphins, getting rushing touchdowns from running backs Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon as well as a 50- yard scamper for a score from quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Gore ran for 63 yards on 12 carries and Kaepernick also threw for 185 yards on 18-of-23 passing for San Francisco, which is 5-1-1 in its last seven.
"I think my comfort level is about the same as the beginning of the season. I've been comfortable this whole season with everything," the second-year Kaepernick said following his fourth straight start.
In all, the 49ers ran for 155 yards on 28 carries and held the Dolphins' offense to just 227 yards of offense. Linebacker Aldon Smith continued his sack assault with another two on Sunday.
At 9-3-1 on the season, first-place San Francisco maintained its lead over the 8-5 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.
The 49ers lead the all-time series with the Patriots 7-4, but have lost their last three versus the Pats. San Francisco hasn't beaten New England since Sept. 17, 1995.
The Patriots won the most recent encounter 30-21 in 2008. Current Niner wide receiver Randy Moss tagged his current club for 111 receiving yards, including a 66-yard touchdown grab.
While the Patriots are playing their second straight nationally-televised game, this is the first of two straight primetime games for the 49ers, who had next weekend's game versus the Seahawks flexed to Sunday night.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
An MVP candidate year in and year out, Brady matched Brett Favre for the second-most career games with at least three touchdown passes and no interceptions, recording his 36th such outing last Monday.
Brady's streak of 45 straight games with a touchdown pass is the third-longest in NFL history and he is just 167 yards shy of reaching 4,000 in the season for the fifth time in his career.
It is no secret that the Super Bowl-winning quarterback drives the Patriots and has been nearly mistake-free over their current winning streak, tossing 19 touchdown passes to one interception in the seven games.
Brady has been operating without one of his top targets from last season, tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm), and has also lost wide receiver Julian Edelman for the season (foot).
That is one reason that the Pats brought in Stallworth and his injury led to New England re-signing former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch on Wednesday. Branch caught nine passes for 80 yards in seven games for New England earlier this season before being released by the team on Nov. 17.
Fellow wide out Wes Welker had three catches for 52 yards on Monday and is five catches shy of becoming the first player in league history with five 100- catch seasons.
While Brady is a big part of New England's top-ranked offense, the run game contributes as well. Steven Ridley had 72 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries versus the Texans, his seventh straight game with a rushing score.
New England's offense will be tested this weekend as San Francisco is ranked second in total defense while yielding the fewest points per game in the league at 14.2.
"Yeah (they're) a very hard-hitting group. I'd say the whole defense is that way. It's a very physical defense, certainly at the safety position," said Brady.
The strength of the 49ers' unit resides at linebacker, where Patrick Willis is a Pro Bowl regular, NaVorro Bowman leads the team with 116 and Aldon Smith is pacing all NFL players with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks. He has 15 sacks in his last seven games and figures to be in Brady's space all game long.
"His ability to both have speed and power is the biggest one," Harbaugh said of Smith. "To be able to go from speed rush to power and make that transfer. That's unique, that's rare. He's got exceptional strength and athleticism that allow him to do that."
San Francisco is looking to make its offense more unpredictable with Kaepernick under center. The youngster is the first quarterback in league history to have 175-plus passing yards and a run of 50 yards or longer in consecutive games.
Kaepernick has rushed for five touchdowns this season, the most by a Niners quarterback since Jeff Garcia's five in 2001, and his 50-yard score on the ground last weekend is the longest rushing touchdown by a quarterback in club history.
If anyone can help the 49ers in this game, it could be Moss. The wide out played in 52 games with the Patriots from 2007-10 and logged 259 catches for 3,904 yards with 50 touchdowns. That includes a historic '07 campaign in which he had 1,493 yards on 98 catches with 23 touchdowns.
Moss' numbers are down after he sat out the 2011 season as he has hauled in just 21 passes on 36 targets for 326 yards and two scores.
But still, any insight on how Brady operates will be welcomed by the 49ers.
In the Patriots, the 49ers will be looking at a team they would love to emulate.
"They're always consistently good. Everything they do scheme wise is very tough to prepare for because you don't know what they're going to do. And just very well coached. Very top shelf for the National Football League on the field," noted Harbaugh.
The difference in this game, like most NFL games, could boil down to the quarterback position. Kaepernick loves to make plays with his legs and Belichick will have his eighth-ranked run defense ready for that. That will force the youngster to make plays with his arm and the Niners hope he will be ready to do just that.
For New England, if there is any quarterback who can find the holes in San Francisco's talented defense, it is Brady.
"I think the two most important things for a quarterback are his decision making and accuracy," said Belichick when asked about Kaepernick's ability to read the field, an attribute Harbaugh has praised with his young quarterback.
"I could probably go out there and read the field decently but I don't think you'd want me playing quarterback," continued Belichick. "There are other guys that can thread a needle but maybe not see as well but I think the combination of seeing the field, making good decisions and accuracy is really what it comes down to more than some other qualities."
It certainly sounds like Belichick is talking about the talents of Brady, who will likely figure heavily into the outcome of this game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, 49ers 20
12/13 16:30:39 ET