Well, you know what they say about the New England Patriots in December, especially when they're playing at home.
Will the San Francisco 49ers be the team to prove that the Patriots can, in fact, be beaten on their own turf in the final month of the regular season?
For the second straight week, the Patriots will take on a serious contender at Gillette Stadium, but after Monday's annihilation of the Houston Texans, there are far fewer people doubting them. Their defense finally showed up, their offense was unstoppable and the Texans were left with their heads spinning midway through the first half as New England rolled to a 42-14 win.
The 49ers, meanwhile, bounced back from a tough overtime loss to St. Louis with a win over Miami in Week 14, and Colin Kaepernick was good enough, throwing for 185 yards.
What will happen when one of the best of the AFC takes on one of the best of the NFC in Week 15?
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
When: Sunday, Dec. 16 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Listen: 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston, KNBR 680/1050 AM and KSAN 107.7 in San Francisco
Live Stream: GamePass
Betting Line (via OddsShark): New England -3
What's at Stake?
At this point, both of these teams are playing for prime playoff positioning.
As it stands, the Patriots are the projected second seed in the AFC at 10-3, one game behind the Texans. Needless to say, they need to win out if they have any hope of taking over that top spot—and they need to hope for at least one Texans loss. If these two teams finish the regular season with the same record, the Patriots have the tiebreaker. No matter what the Texans do, though, losing one game puts a big wrench in the Patriots' plans to get the No. 1 seed, especially with the Broncos (10-3) playing so well right now.
In the NFC, the 11-2 Falcons currently own the top seed, while the 49ers are behind them at 9-3-1. While catching up to Atlanta may be a tall task, the 49ers need to keep winning to stay one step ahead of the Packers (9-4, but San Francisco has the tiebreaker there) and the Bears (8-5).
No matter the outcome, there are big implications for both teams this week. A loss could end up being the difference between a first-round bye and a wild-card game.
San Francisco Key Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
- RB Brandon Jacobs is suspended for the rest of the regular season
- K David Akers (pelvis) is probable
- LB NaVorro Bowman (shoulder) is probable
- CB Tarell Brown (hamstring) is probable
- CB Chris Culliver (illness) is probable
- LB Tavares Gooden (knee, elbow) is probable
- RB Frank Gore (wrist) is probable
- G Mike Iupati (shoulder) is probable
- WR Mario Manningham (shoulder) is doubtful
- CB Carlos Rogers (knee) is probable
- LB Aldon Smith (shoulder) is probable
- LB Patrick Willis (shoulder) is probable
New England Key Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
- DB Aqib Talib (hip) left Monday's game vs. Houston
- DT Ron Brace (elbow) missed Monday's game
- S Patrick Chung (shoulder, hamstring) is questionable
- G Dan Connolly (back) is questionable
- TE Rob Gronkowski (forearm, hip) is out
- TE Aaron Hernandez (ankle) is questionable
- LB Dont'a Hightower (hamstring) is questionable
- DE Chandler Jones (ankle) is questionable
- WR Brandon Lloyd (knee) is questionable
- DT Kyle Love (knee) is questionable
- G Logan Mankins (ankle, calf) is questionable
- LB Jerod Mayo (elbow) is probable
- G Nick McDonald (shoulder) is questionable
- LB Brandon Spikes (knee, ankle) is questionable
- T Sebastian Vollmer (back, knee) is questionable
- WR Wes Welker (ankle) is questionable
- DL Jermaine Cunningham is suspended
Fantasy Prospect to Watch: Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez
Against the Texans on Monday night, Aaron Hernandez had his best game of the season—a season in which he's been limited by an ankle injury. For the first time, that didn't seem to hold him back.
Hernandez registered his first multi-touchdown game of the season, finishing with 58 yards and two TDs on eight receptions. He made it look easy against a weak and befuddled Houston defense, capitalizing twice in the first half: His first reception, a seven-yarder, came just over five minutes into the action, while his second, a four-yarder, came with 11 minutes left in the half.
This is the best Hernandez has looked all season, and that's certainly a confidence booster for his fantasy owners, who have been alternately disappointed and underwhelmed by him in 2012. His job won't be easy against the second-ranked San Francisco pass defense, but Monday's performance was just about as encouraging as it gets.
What They're Saying
It has begun: It's December, the Patriots are rolling and someone has dubbed them the favorites in Super Bowl XLVII. This time, it's James Walker of ESPN.com, who writes that the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick quarterback-coach tandem is impossible for any other NFL team to contend with.
And what's more is that the Patriots have now embarrassed the team that was previously considered the favorite to represent the AFC in the big game in February.
Can you reasonably make a case for anyone else after New England's resounding, 42-14, blowout victory over the Houston Texans? The Patriots (10-3) not only pounded the rugged Texans, but made a strong statement on national television. … If there's anyone better than New England in the NFC, I'd like to see it.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves; the Patriots have looked like the league's best team a couple of times before, and we know what has happened when the time has come to win the big one.
As the Patriots rose on Monday, the Texans fell, and we learned that perhaps Houston doesn't have what it takes to contend with the best teams in the NFL, according to ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky.
Now, a team that was a Super Bowl favorite just a week or two ago is going to have to work hard to avoid ceding the division title to the Colts, against whom it will play two of its final three games. Monday's game taught us a lot about the Texans' toughness—or their lack thereof, Kuharksy writes:
[Monday] was so bad the Texans basically waved a white flag early in the fourth quarter, huddling on offense rather than hustling to maximize their time, and running the ball on four consecutive plays. … The Texans’ two losses have come against Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. They gave up a lot to Peyton Manning in a victory, too. This team’s odds of beating two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the playoffs, even if both games are at Reliant Stadium, are low.
At this point, Houston has to play its best football of the season over the next three weeks, and when playoff time comes around, it has to hope for the best matchups.
San Francisco Key Player
Colin Kaepernick, assuming he's still the starter on Sunday night, is going to have to play the game of his life at Gillette Stadium—but despite his limited experience, beating the Patriots isn't totally out of the question.
Historically, New England's defense has had its fair share of troubles with quarterbacks it has never faced. This season, the Patriots have been up and down when facing rookie QBs. In Week 6, it suffered a debilitating loss to Russell Wilson and Seattle on the road, blowing a big lead in the process. But in Week 11, against Andrew Luck and the Colts, the Patriots earned a huge 59-24 statement win.
One thing working in San Francisco's favor: It is far more similar to Seattle than Indianapolis, given its second-ranked defense. If the 49ers D can do its job and Kaepernick can stay confident and avoid mistakes, he and San Francisco really have a chance in this game—even in Foxboro, even in December.
New England Key Player(s)
For a defense that has been slammed all season for being soft, this unit really showed up against the AFC's top team on Monday Night Football. And that was the difference in this one. Questionable calls and lucky bounces aside, New England's defense made sure the Texans knew they didn't have a chance in that game from the first minute of the first quarter on.
By the beginning of the second quarter, Houston was playing like a team that was ready to go home, and New England's defense is going to have to make the 49ers feel the exact same way. On Monday night, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower combined for 13 tackles, three tackles for a loss and four quarterback hits. Vince Wilfork chipped in for key tackles of his own, including a sack. Even the much-maligned Kyle Arrington came up with three tackles and two pass deflections, and Devin McCourty registered the Patriots' only interception.
If New England's defense—particularly those four guys—can play like that once again on Sunday night, they can make sure the 49ers know they don't have a shot.
Prediction: Patriots Win
The last time I picked a rookie quarterback over the Patriots, the Patriots laid a beating on the Indianapolis Colts—and they're playing even better now than they were back then.
It's hard to beat New England at home in the month of December: Since Gillette opened in 2002, they're 21-1 during the month, according to the team's official website. Overall, they're 43-5 in December since the Brady-Belichick reign began in 2001.
Even off paper the Patriots look like they're playing their best football of the season right now. Together, none of that bodes well for the 49ers.
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