New England Patriots: San Francisco 49ers

ESPN Boston's picks: Super Bowl XLVII

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
8:59
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Here's how ESPNBoston.com's experts see Super Bowl XLVII between the Niners and Ravens playing out Sunday. What's your prediction? Leave your pick in the comments section.

Niners win sets up possible Pats rematch

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
6:26
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One half of the equation for Super Bowl XLVII is settled: The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship to advance, and now await the winner of Patriots-Ravens on the AFC side.

NinersShould the Patriots punch their own ticket to the Super Bowl, here are a few early thoughts on a potential 49ers-Patriots matchup.

1. Rematch from Week 15. The 49ers traveled cross-country to Gillette Stadium in Week 15 and raced to a massive 31-3 lead early in the third quarter over the Patriots. The game looked to be over at that point, but the Patriots offense went on a tear to score 28 unanswered points to knot the game back up at 31 in the fourth. Ultimately, the Patriots couldn't get a stop late in the fourth quarter, yielding 10 more 49ers points, and falling short on what would have been an epic comeback. If Week 15 is any indication, these two teams are an extremely even matchup from a talent standpoint.

2. Slowing Kaepernick. The Patriots did about as well as anyone has in slowing down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a runner, limiting him to 28 yards on four carries. What they didn't do is keep Kaepernick in check as a passer, as he finished with four touchdown throws, including two to Michael Crabtree. Kaepernick has proved how dangerous he is as a runner during his time as a starter, and recently set an NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a postseason game against the Packers with 182. Finding a way to contain Kaepernick, both on the ground (via the read option) and through the air, would be critical.

3. Moss reunion. Former Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss has been a solid veteran addition for San Francisco this year, and he actually had a touchdown catch against the Patriots back in Week 15. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has shared round praise for Moss as a teammate this season, and he has been thrust into a larger role due to a recent injury to Mario Manningham.

4. Turnovers will be key. Four turnovers failed the Patriots back in Week 15, as slick conditions left running backs vulnerable to fumbles. The game also occurred in the midst of an uncharacteristic stretch for Tom Brady, as he threw two interceptions and just one touchdown. The Patriots were as careful with the football as virtually any team this season, but San Francisco has a hard-hitting defense that can alter the course of a game with forced fumbles and interceptions.

5. Blocking the Smiths. The 49ers boast a pair of Smiths on the defensive line, Justin and Aldon, who team up to form one of the better defensive tandems in football (linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are no slouches either). Aldon Smith finished with 19.5 sacks this season, but was truly at his best with Justin on the field, as all of his sacks came with Justin also on the field at the same time. Aldon registered a pair of quarterback hits on Brady back in Week 15.

Picked-up pieces after second-half review

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
11:10
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After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 15 loss to the 49ers, passing along some quick hit notes and observations:

1. The Patriots' defense did what it had to do on the opening drive of the third quarter, as defensive back Devin McCourty came up with an interception in the end zone. If McCourty hadn't made the play, fellow safety Steve Gregory may have, as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick forced a throw to Randy Moss into double coverage. The Patriots dialed up a Cover 4 look, with the deep part of the field well covered. With just two 49ers receivers out in the route, there was little trouble putting together blanket coverage. The forced throw was arguably Kaepernick's biggest error of the night.

2. Breaking down the touchdown throw to Michael Crabtree, which put the 49ers up 31-3: Crabtree was among three receivers to the right side of the San Francisco formation, along with tight ends Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis. At the snap, Walker (the outside receiver) took a couple steps upfield before turning back toward the ball. That kept cornerback Kyle Arrington, playing the flat in Cover 2, near the line of scrimmage. Davis, the middle receiver, ran an out breaking route down the field, which Gregory had to keep an eye on. Crabtree, meanwhile, ran a vertical skinny post to the inside shoulder of Gregory. It looked as though Kaepernick was able to hold Gregory with his eyes just long enough to open a window to throw to Crabtree, and neither Gregory nor McCourty was able to converge quickly enough. The play wasn't bad defense, just good offensive execution.

3. The Patriots finally scored with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, and there was a play call that stood out upon further review. Facing a third and 9 from the 21-yard line, the Patriots ran a draw play to Danny Woodhead. That's not necessarily a play one associates with picking up nine yards (although Woodhead actually gained 15), but consider the circumstances: down 28 points, less than 19 minutes left in regulation, the play call was likely made knowing that they would have two downs to get nine yards if needed. At that point of the game, the Patriots could not afford to settle for a field goal, and were effectively in four-down territory. Nice job by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to dial up a run with the 49ers in sub defense and playing their safeties 10-11 yards off the line of scrimmage.

4. Left tackle Nate Solder was added to the injury report on Friday with an abdomen issue that left him questionable to play. He played, of course, and was solid overall on the evening. Solder did well to mix up the elements of strength in his game, which included using his unique reach and length to push rushers past the pocket. That was the case on a first and 10 with 3:06 to go in the third quarter, as Solder rode Justin Smith up the field off the snap, and then managed to keep Smith off of Brady by walling him off with his right arm and pushing him past the pocket. Brady did a nice job to step up, while Solder earns praise for taking advantage of his physical gifts to counter the quickness of Smith off the edge.

5. What an outstanding throw and catch by Brady to Michael Hoomanawanui for his lone reception of the evening, a 41-yarder. It actually looked as though "Hooman" was Brady's fifth and final read on the play, as he was sent down the field on a vertical route that may have been as much about clearing space for underneath receivers as anything else. On Monday morning, Brady quipped that throwing the ball down the field to his tight end isn't how the team had practiced that play, but both Brady and Hoomanawanui deserve credit for staying with the play and executing a difficult connection.

6. Neat play design of the night: Facing a "gotta have it" scenario on a fourth and 2 from their own 43, the Patriots brought out their "12" personnel, with both tight ends aligned to the left in what is known as a "YY" set. Brandon Lloyd was the split end to the opposite side of the formation, and Wes Welker was in a wing alignment off the hip of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. At the snap, Welker held for a second as if to sell run action, and Brady play faked a handoff to Woodhead. He quickly pivoted 180 degrees and floated a throw to Welker, who, after hesitating, darted toward the sidelines where he was all alone. The play was a wrinkle we've yet to see in 2012, and was very good situational execution.

7. Another week, and another red zone score from Hernandez in which he beat man coverage. Recalling training camp, it was clear that few defensive players were able to handle the slippery third-year tight end in man-to-man coverage, and he got a bit of help from a play design on his third score in two weeks. Hernandez and Lloyd were aligned to the left side of the formation, with Lloyd the outside target. Lloyd's in-breaking route intersected with Hernandez's out-breaking route, leaving safety Donte Whitner in no position to make a play on the ball. The Patriots, like most NFL teams, rely on those natural picks -- known as a rub concept -- near the goal line.

8. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich shares a number and similar role with former Patriot Mike Vrabel, and he took a page out of Vrabel's book for his fourth-quarter sack. Ninkovich set up left tackle Joe Staley with a hesitation move upon the snap, and eventually used a nifty swim move to get over the top of Staley and corral Kaepernick for the sack. Vrabel was a solid technician as a pass rusher, and Ninkovich has shown similar ability to make his move as much with his arms and hands as his feet.

9. Breaking down the touchdown throw to Crabtree, part two: After seizing momentum and tying the game at 31, poor kickoff coverage and pass coverage left the Patriots once again playing from behind. On a first and 10 from the Patriots' 38, the 49ers sent four receivers into a pattern that was defended by Cover 0 -- man coverage with no safety help. The Patriots brought seven rushers on the play, and cornerback Kyle Arrington was simply beat on a comeback route by Crabtree. While the Patriots don't want their defensive backs to be beat in man coverage, those kinds of things happen. Crabtree ran a solid route, Kaepernick put a good ball on his frame. What is likely a tougher pill to swallow for the Patriots is that Arrington took a poor angle in attempting to tackle Crabtree. Crabtree ran a comeback that hooked back inside, not out. Arrington drove to Crabtree's outside shoulder (toward the sideline), not his inside shoulder. Based on the momentum and direction of the route, Arrington would have helped himself to push toward the other shoulder to ensure a tackle. That's the part that stings most about the play.

10. There's been some discussion as to whether or not the Patriots were right to go for it on fourth and 2 from deep in their own territory late in the game. The argument against going for it was that the Patriots had two timeouts plus the two-minute warning to stop the clock if they had elected to punt and give the football back to San Francisco. On the other hand, there was no guarantee that the Patriots would get the football back if they had punted, and even if they did, it would have likely been deep in their own territory with no timeouts and short time on the clock. Going for it on fourth and 2 made sense. What could have paid dividends for the Patriots is, assuming they were committed to going for it on fourth down prior to the third and 2 play, running the football on third down. The 49ers were playing the pass, and likely content to let the Patriots gain a couple of yards instead of a big play down the field. Given how the Patriots were able to spread the field and run the football with Woodhead, an argument could have been made to hand him the football on third down to convert. Hindsight is always 20/20 in these situations. It's easy to say what the team should have done, but ultimately execution is what matters.

Patriots ride win-probability roller coaster

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
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The 49ers led the Patriots by as many as 28 points in the second half on Sunday night before New England tied the game with 28 consecutive points of its own. San Francisco would eventually hang on for the 7-point win, capping a wild night in terms of win probability for the Patriots. At their lowest point -- trailing 31-3 with 10:26 remaining in the third quarter -- the Patriots only have a 0.8 percent win probability. That increased to nearly 50 percent after they scored four straight touchdowns.

Brady: Confident even when trailing by 28

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
9:33
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The momentum was nearly palpable at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night after the Patriots completed an unlikely 28-point comeback to knot their Week 15 matchup with the 49ers 31-31 in the fourth quarter. At that point, it appeared the game would finish in the Patriots' favor, but ultimately the 49ers earned a 41-34 triumph.

But quarterback Tom Brady said that not only was he confident his Patriots would win after tying the game at 31, but he thought his team would make the unexpected comeback when down by four touchdowns in the second half.

"When we were down 31-3, that was my thought," Brady said on his weekly radio appearance on Boston sports radio station WEEI (click here to listen). "I didn't think anything different. I thought we were going to come back and win the game, and a lot of our problems on offense were self-inflicted. I have a lot of respect for that defense. They're very good; they rush, they cover, they're physical, they force turnovers. It was just a sloppy game by us."

Why was he so sure despite the big deficit?

"Because I look around at the quality and character of the guys that we've got, and I have a lot of confidence that we could do it," he said. "It's not that I was worried we couldn't score points. We put together, I don't know, was it four touchdown drives in a row? That's pretty good. You can't play, whatever, 25 minutes of good football against a team; you can't do it."

After stumbling through much of the first half, which included two interceptions by Brady, the offense clicked in the second half and had a bead on a 49ers defense that ranks as the league's best. Brady attributed the turn in fortunes not to a difference in approach and play calling, but rather to improved execution.

"No, it didn't," he replied when asked whether the play calling shifted. "We turned the ball over early, we had missed opportunities on third down. If you can't really sustain the drives and you keep giving them the ball, you're not going to score points. It's going to look pretty bad. But when you're making the plays that are there, and when you're making big plays, and we made a bunch of them, you score points. And that was the difference. It's not the plays, it's what we do as players to make those plays."

The message is consistent with what Brady delivered during the Patriots' early-season struggles, when they lost three of their first five games.

"There's really no mystery to not scoring points or scoring points for us as an offense," he said. "It's not like there's different plays that we're calling, it's just doing a better job with the ones that are called when we're scoring points. I would say I'm really proud of the fact that our guys never blinked an eye down 28 points to probably the best defense in the league. We had confidence the whole way, and we fought back to get to an even score, and we just couldn't get over the hump."

The loss pushed the Patriots back in the AFC playoff standings, and they no longer control their own destiny for a top-two seed and a first-round bye. Given the easy remaining schedule of the Denver Broncos, who stand a game ahead of the Patriots, it will take an unlikely series of events for the Patriots to get a top-two seed.

But Brady stressed that his team isn't thinking about the playoffs, but rather is focused on the task at hand: Sunday’s road game against the 2-12 Jacksonville Jaguars.

"Our season is not over by any means," he said. "We lost to a good team playing very average football. We're 10-4, it's certainly not a great record, but that's where we deserve to be. We've got to be able to move on with mental toughness this week and put this loss behind us and go down to Jacksonville and try to win a football game."

Stats snapshot: Tracking a few trends

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
2:10
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A few statistical takeaways from the Patriots' 41-34 loss to to the Niners on Sunday night:

* Patriots uncharacteristically bad on third down: The Patriots converted 2-of-15 third downs (13.3 percent), were held to minus-1 total yards on their first seven attempts (zero conversions) and eventually picked up their first conversion with 10:06 remaining in the third quarter. The Patriots entered Week 15 as the league’s best third-down team (52.5 conversion rate) and the only team with a conversion percentage higher than 45.0.

* Niners shut down everything but empty set: Tom Brady was the lone Patriots player in the backfield on 26 plays Sunday, with 19 coming in the second half, and all of the plays featuring a running back split out wide. Brady was 15-of-24 from those formations Sunday (sacked once and rushed once) and 21-of-41 with at least one other player in the backfield.

* Brady better in the second half: Tom Brady was 1-of-5 with an interception passing more than 10 yards downfield in the first half Sunday. Brady found more success in the second half, completing 7-of-13 attempts of those distances, averaging 14.8 yards per attempt.

* Kaepernick goes deep: Colin Kaepernick attempted a career-high six passes more than 20 yards downfield Sunday, completing three of them, all for touchdowns. His third completion and last attempt came on the touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree to go up 31-3.

Reiss: Don't call it a comeback

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
2:02
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In the video above, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss tries to make sense of what he calls "one of the most wild games in Gillette Stadium history."

Rogers 'knew it was going to be a battle'

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
1:08
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In the video above, Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers talks to ESPN about intercepting Tom Brady and his team's victory over the Patriots.

He said studying film of Brady with teammate Randy Moss helped him in prepping for Sunday's game.

Video: Dilfer's take on Sunday's wild game

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
1:03
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ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer analyzed Sunday night's wild game between the Patriots and Niners the way a boxing commentator would describe a fight between two heavyweights trading haymakers.

"For the most part I think it was the 49ers dictating terms in the first half," Dilfer says in the video above, "and the second half there during the scoring run by the New England Patriots it was the New England Patriots playing at the top of their game. And there's going to be be ebbs and flows when two really good teams meet each other. I think that's what we saw more than anything else."

Patriots no longer control own destiny

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After losing 41-34 to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, the Patriots fell to third place in the AFC standings at 10-4. The loss pushes the Patriots behind the Denver Broncos (11-3), who won their ninth straight game earlier on Sunday.

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The Broncos and Texans (12-2) are in control for the top two seeds in the AFC, and Houston can clinch the top overall seed with a Week 16 win. The Patriots would need either the Texans or Broncos to falter over the final two weeks of the season to have a chance at a first-round bye.

Unless the unexpected happens (Denver's final two foes have a combined .250 winning percentage), the Patriots seem headed to the No. 3 seed in the AFC and a wild-card weekend matchup against either Indianapolis or Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or -- believe it or not -- the New York Jets.

More importantly, the Patriots project to be headed to a divisional-round matchup against the surging Broncos ... in Denver. For Patriots fans, that has to be a concern.

Here is an updated look at the AFC playoff standings. You can project the final two games with ESPN.com's Playoff Machine:

Division leaders
1. Houston (12-2, clinched AFC South)
2. Denver (11-3, cliched AFC West)
3. New England (10-4, clinched AFC East)
4. Baltimore (9-5, clinched playoff berth)

Wild cards
5. Indianapolis (9-5)
6. Cincinnati (8-6)

In the mix
7. Pittsburgh (7-7)
8. New York Jets (6-7; play Tennessee on Monday night)

And here's a look at the remaining schedules for the top teams in the AFC:


Rapid Reaction: 49ers 41, Patriots 34

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
12:10
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots' 41-34 loss to the 49ers at Gillette Stadium:

NinersPatriotsWhat it means. The Patriots fall to 10-4 and drop to the third seed in the AFC playoffs, as their hopes of a first-round playoff bye take a major hit. They now look up at the Texans (12-2) and the Broncos (11-3). The Patriots have remaining games at Jacksonville (Dec. 23) and at home against the Dolphins (Dec. 30). The Texans have a home game against the Vikings before closing on the road against the Colts. The Broncos host the Browns and Chiefs. Meanwhile, the 49ers improve to 10-3-1 and gain respect in the process.

Summing up what happened -– a comeback falls short. The Patriots trailed 31-3 with 10:21 remaining in the third quarter and it looked like a blowout. But they made a spirited comeback to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 left, and a rain-soaked Gillette Stadium was rocking. But a 62-yard kickoff return by LaMichael James, followed by a 38-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Michael Crabtree on which cornerback Kyle Arrington missed a tackle helped the 49ers re-establish momentum. In a wild game played in heavy rain, that was the key sequence. NFL teams have lost 242 straight games when trailing by 21 or more points in the fourth quarter and the Patriots almost broke that streak.

Turnovers hurt Patriots. Entering the game with an NFL-best plus-24 turnover differential, the Patriots have thrived in that area. They were uncharacteristically careless with the football, with Tom Brady throwing a first-quarter interception into tight coverage, and running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen also fumbled. That put the Patriots in an early hole. The Patriots entered the game with just 10 turnovers but had four in the game (two Brady interceptions, fumbles by Ridley and Vereen).

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Credit to the 49ers. The Patriots have the best regular-season home record in the NFL since 2002, at 72-14. So for the 49ers to come here and play the way they did, they deserve a tremendous amount of credit. Their defense controlled the first half, and the offense hurt the Patriots with a combination of the running game and the big passing play. The performance also included receiver Randy Moss hurting his former team with a 24-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter that opened the scoring and helped the 49ers avoid the early hole that often leads to opponents crumbling in that situation against the high-powered Patriots.

Injuries to monitor. Starting right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard left the game in the second quarter with a right knee injury and did not return. Also, reserve linebacker Mike Rivera left in the second half with an ankle injury and did not return.

Brady’s streak of passing TDs extends to 46. Quarterback Tom Brady had been held without a touchdown pass through the first three quarters, and his streak of games with at least one touchdown pass was in jeopardy. But Brady found tight end Aaron Hernandez for a 5-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to extend the streak to 46 games, the third longest streak all-time behind Johnny Unitas (47) and Drew Brees (54).

Welker sets NFL record for 100-catch seasons. Patriots receiver Wes Welker became the first player in NFL history to record five 100-catch seasons. He had to earn it, as the 49ers held him without a catch in the first half. Welker set the mark midway through the fourth quarter.

What’s next. The Patriots travel to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars on Sunday, Dec. 23. The 49ers visit the Seahawks that day.

Quick-hit thoughts from third quarter

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Entering the final quarter of play, the Patriots trail the 49ers 31-10. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the third quarter.

1. Ridley coughs up football again. The Patriots managed to stall the 49ers on their opening drive with an interception from defensive back Devin McCourty, and they were making progress on capitalizing on the mistake with an offensive drive that spanned into San Francisco territory. The drive was halted by a fumble from running back Stevan Ridley, his second in as many weeks. The 49ers returned the fumble all the way to the Patriots' three-yard line, and cashed in just a play later on a touchdown by Frank Gore.

2. Smith makes the pick. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady later looked for tight end Aaron Hernandez on a tear screen near the line of scrimmage, but Hernadnez bobbled the football and it was picked off by linebacker Aldon Smith. The play set the 49ers up on the Patriots' 27-yard line, and on the very next play Colin Kaepernick hit wide receiver Michael Crabtree for a touchdown.

3. Woodhead adds TD. The Patriots offense finally got it going with a touchdown drive that was capped off with a short rushing score by Danny Woodhead. After earlier fumbles by both Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, Woodhead could be in line for more carries and playing time. Additionally, with the Patriots playing from behind, Woodhead gives them the best option in their hurry-up, spread offensive look.

4. Chung replaces Gregory. In a defensive personnel switch, Patrick Chung appears to have taken over for Steve Gregory at safety, at least temporarily. There wasn't any indication of an injury to Gregory, so this could be performance-related. Gregory has chipped in with two tackles and one pass defensed to this point in the game.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties in the third quarter: defensive end Chandler Jones (offsides), guard Logan Mankins (personal foul), team offense (illegal shift),

Dennard leaves with knee injury

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
10:55
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard suffered a right knee injury late in the second quarter of Sunday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers.

The team announced Dennard's return as questionable and he did not return to the game.

Dennard was blocked in the legs on a 10-yard run by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick with 14 seconds left in the first half. Trainers helped Dennard to the locker room, but he was back on the sidelines at the start of the second half.

The 2012 seventh-round draft pick has started six of the last seven games for the Patriots. He was replaced in the base defense by Kyle Arrington, and in sub packages by veteran Marquice Cole.

Quick-hit thoughts from second quarter

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
10:08
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At halftime of their Week 15 matchup, the Patriots trail the 49ers 17-3. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the second quarter.

1. Pats lead off with fourth-down stop. The very first play of the quarter was a big one for the Patriots, as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was unable to convert on a 4th & inches situation on a sneak. It didn't appear that Kaepernick was able to handle the snap cleanly, forcing him to almost kneel down upon the snap and not advance the football. The 49ers were unable to take advantage of opportunities in the Patriots territory early on in the game.

2. Gostkowski puts Pats on board. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski connected for a 33-yard field goal on the Patriots' opening drive of the second quarter, narrowing the 49ers lead to 7-3 at the time. It took the Patriots six drives to put points on the board tonight. Previously, the highest number of drives it had taken them to score in a game this season was just three.

3. Niners make quick work, score again. It took just three plays and lasted less than two minutes, as the 49ers cruised down the field for their second touchdown drive of the night. Of note on the drive was a pass interference penalty on Aqib Talib that set the 49ers up in Patriots territory, and what looked like a coverage bust on the touchdown. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was seemingly left alone to cover two separate 49ers receivers, and Kaepernick was able to find tight end Delanie Walker for an easy score.

4. Offense can't find rhythm. The enduring theme of the first half has been the Patriots' inability to find a rhythm on offense. That's a credit to the 49ers' incredibly tough defense, and perhaps a reflection on how the elements have played a factor thus far. Of note, wide receiver Wes Welker has been shut out from the passing game. He has recorded a catch in every single game that he has played with the Patriots, but has yet to catch a pass tonight. Additionally, quarterback Tom Brady has been hit four times, and the offense has not converted a third down. The Patriots must make the necessary adjustments to get on track in the second half.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties in the second quarter: cornerback Aqib Talib (pass interference).

Welcome to Gillette Stadium

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
3:46
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 Gillette StadiumMike Rodak/ESPNBoston.comA tarp covered the Gillette Stadium turf early this afternoon.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Welcome to Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots (10-3) host the San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) on Sunday night.

Weather could be a factor. The Patriots are playing in their second prime-time game in six days, and like last Monday night against the Houston Texans, there is inclement weather in the forecast. As of 3 p.m., there was a light wintry mix falling at Gillette Stadium, with temperatures hovering just above freezing (34 degrees) and light winds. Temperatures are expected to rise slightly by kickoff, which could change any precipitation over to rain. The latest forecast calls for an 80 to 100 percent chance of rain during the game, with the potential for sleet to mix in.

Pregame ceremony for Newtown victims. As outlined in this earlier report from ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, the Patriots will send up 26 flares during a league-wide moment of silence before tonight's game, remembering the victim's of Friday's tragedy in Newtown, Conn. They will also wear a white decal on the back of their helmets with a black ribbon and the Town of Newtown seal.

Eyes on Gronk. The Patriots come into tonight's game with 52 players on their roster, one shy of the 53-man limit. As such, they will only need to declare six inactives 90 minutes prior to kickoff. The biggest name to watch will be tight end Rob Gronkowski, who returned to (at least the start of) Friday's practice, four weeks after suffering a broken forearm. Otherwise, the Patriots have a season-high 19 players listed as questionable on the injury report.

Curtis Martin to serve as honorary captain. As part of the NFL's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Patriots will have three of their five Pro Football Hall of Famers as honorary captains tonight: running back Curtis Martin, cornerback Mike Haynes and linebacker Andre Tippett. Players will also wear a commemorative patch on their uniforms for the second straight game.

Hochuli gets the call. Perhaps the most recognizable NFL official, Ed Hochuli, will serve as tonight's referee. This will be his first Patriots game he officiates this season.

Scouts in the house. As expected, there are advance scouts from the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars scheduled to be in the press box tonight. Next week, the Patriots will travel to Jacksonville, while the 49ers will fly to Seattle.

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