In Week 14, the Patriots took care of business against the class of the AFC, routing the Texans 42-14 in front of a national audience. They now get to take their shot at the team many are considering the favorite to emerge from the NFC and play in Super Bowl XLVII, as they'll welcome the San Francisco 49ers for a Sunday night matchup at Gillette Stadium.
It wasn't long ago that the 49ers' franchise was stuck in neutral -- or perhaps traveling in reverse -- as a six-win regular season in 2010 prompted a coaching change. The shift from Mike Singletary to then-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh was an apparent step in the right direction for the team, though few predicted such an immediate turnaround.
Harbaugh has brought an identity to the 49ers, and has managed to press seemingly every right button since taking over as the head coach. He's been aided by strong work from general manager Trent Baalke, who has made shrewd personnel decisions to help build one the most talented rosters in football.
Here's an introduction to the 49ers, including the names and faces of note:
Record: 9-3-1 (first in NFC West)
Head coach: Jim Harbaugh (second season, 22-6-1)
Offensive coordinator: Greg Roman
Defensive coordinator: Vic Fangio
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. RB Frank Gore. It will come as no surprise if the words tough and physical are thrown around extensively this week in talking about the 49ers, and running back Frank Gore possesses both toughness and phyiscality in his game. He's just 5-foot-9, but a load at nearly 220 pounds, and he runs downhill each time he touches the football. He surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau in Week 14 (the sixth time he's done so in his career), and is a very good runner near the goal line. He can catch the football, and even throws a shoulder around as a blocker from time-to-time. This guy is the real deal.
2. QB Colin Kaepernick. The second-year player out of Nevada took over as the starter after Alex Smith went down with a concussion in November and has added a new dimension of running ability to the Niners' offense. Kaepernick was sensational in his first start as a pro, but has been a little bit up and down since. Nonetheless, he possesses very good arm strength, mobility and accuracy for a player at this stage in his career. The Patriots probably haven't played a more athletic quarterback this season, with the closest competition being Jake Locker all the way back in Week 1 and Ryan Tannehill in Week 13.
3. LT Joe Staley. The Patriots got a taste of a really good left tackle on Monday night in facing Duane Brown, and they'll take on another this week in Joe Staley, who like Brown, is a former tight end who made the successful switch to left tackle. He's been a rock in San Francisco since the team drafted him back in 2007 using a pick that was acquired from the Patriots in a trade that helped New England land both linebacker Jerod Mayo and wide receive Randy Moss.
FOUR PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. LB Aldon Smith. Remember all the chatter about J.J. Watt and his pass-rushing ability leading up the Monday night matchup between the Patriots and Texans? Well, Aldon Smith has been even more lethal as a pass rusher this season, leading the NFL with an astounding 19.5 sacks through 13 games, just 3.5 short of the single-season record held by former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan. The 2011 first-round pick burst onto the scene with 14 sacks as rookie, which in almost any other season would have secured a Defensive Rookie of the Year honor, but Smith fell just short because of the spectacular season of Denver linebacker Von Miller.
2. LB Patrick Willis. The man in the middle of San Francisco's defense does it all, and is a vacuum for tackles. He is just a tackle shy of 100 stops for the season, and will reach the century mark for the fifth time in six seasons this Sunday. Willis has terrific movement skills and sideline-to-sideline range, and is a force both against the run and pass.
3. DE Justin Smith. One of the reasons that Aldon Smith has been able to get to the quarterback with such regularity is the play of veteran Justin Smith on the other side of the line. Perhaps no player is more emblematic of the style of football the team has adopted under Harbaugh, with Smith's high-motor, intense, physical approach to the game providing an infectious edge for his team. He has just three sacks this season, but they've all come within the past four weeks.
4. LB NaVorro Bowman. Like we did with the Houston offense a week ago, we amended our normal format of just introducing three opposing players from either side of the football because omitting Bowman would be a shame. There are some who believe that the third-year player out of Penn State has actually surpassed Willis in terms of overall value to this defense, and the 49ers recently made a massive commitment (in the form of a five-year contract extension) to Bowman that highlights how strongly they feel about him. Big, strong, and athletic, Bowman can do it all as a linebacker.
2012 RECAP THROUGH 13 GAMES
The long and short of the 49ers' 2012 season is that they remain in the driver's seat for their second straight division title, and securing a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs is within striking distance (as are the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West race, however). They flew out of the gates with a statement win in Week 1, defeating the Green Bay Packers 30-22 on the road, and have since logged marquee wins over Seattle and Chicago, amongst others. But to paint a picture of how good the 49ers are that should resonate with Patriots fans, one only has to look at how they have performed against the other three AFC East teams thus far in 2012: three wins by a total margin of 106-16. They've been as dominant in the AFC East as the Patriots have this season, and this Sunday should be a tremendous showdown between two highly-talented teams.