49ers vs. Patriots 2012 game preview: Clash of NFL's premier defense, offense

USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers will take on the New England Patriots on Sunday, in a matchup of the NFL's top defense against the NFL's top offense.

The San Francisco 49ers have been playing down to their competition of late. If it's simply a matter of that, and they can play to their own level when they take on the New England Patriots on Sunday, then we should be in for a very exciting, evenly matched game. But there's an awful lot of inconsistency on the field for the 49ers of late.

Since the change from a winning quarterback in Alex Smith, who boasted a 70-plus completion percentage and a quarterback rating of 100+, San Francisco has turned in a dominant performance or two, mixed with some poor games, including a tie and loss to the St. Louis Rams.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have won seven-straight games, and have two easier contests lined up after this one. They'll be coming hard at San Francisco, hoping to attack their vaunted defense to get the lead early and force Jim Harbaugh to make mistakes like the one he made that cost him the game against the Rams (when Colin Kaepernick botched the toss to Ted Ginn Jr.).

Whatever teams show up on Sunday, this is a sneak peek of what could easily be the matchup in this season's Super Bowl, as both teams have an argument for the elite of their respective conference.

Meet the Patriots

New England has been downright visceral in the month of December. They're looking for their 14th-straight December win, and their 21st-straight win at home during the month, on top of that. They've already sealed the AFC East and while they trail the Houston Texans in the conference, they're probably playing better football right now.

Well, they definitely are, given that they just dominated the Texans in Week 14. Tom Brady has 29 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. During the team's present seven-game winning streak, he's thrown 19 touchdowns and only one interception. Brady is as efficient as ever this year, and he'll need to be against San Francisco's defense.

Meet the 49ers

The team recently suspended running back Brandon Jacobs after his slew of complaints of lack of playing time, and rookie LaMichael James got his first carries of the season against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. He played well, and it's likely San Francisco will use him as Gore's primary backup going forward.

Another rookie, A.J. Jenkins, might see some playing time if Mario Manningham is unable to play due to injury. Jenkins was the 49ers' first round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and fans are eager to see him play.

Defensively, linebacker Aldon Smith needs three sacks to match Michael Strahan's single season record. He's got 19.5 on the season and will have his sights set on Patriots tackle Nate Solder. It will probably be crucial to San Francisco's chances of winning on Sunday, as the Patriots boast an exceptionally strong offense.

Local Takes: Patriots

Jeremy Gottlieb from Pats Pulpit took note of the fact that this matchup features the best offense and the best defense in the NFL.

One team has the best offense in the NFL. The other has the best defense. Whether those facts will have any profound effect on the outcome of the game remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that these are two terrific, complete teams both of which are as legit as it gets when it comes to this year's potential Lombardi Trophy winner.

Local Takes: 49ers

Over at Niners Nation, they took a look at the importance of the 49ers' next two games, and more specifically, this one against New England:

So finishing the season 1 - 2 is not just bad for the seeding purposes mentioned above, but it also reflects poorly on your Lombardi dreams in general and, statistically, you are less likely than normal to make it all the way. Let's keep the 49ers off that list of 72 teams by winning in New England.

Follow the Fun

Be sure to check out SB Nation's team blogs, Pats Pulpit and Niners Nation, for more analysis and highlights from the game.

Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:

@PatsPulpit

@NinersNation

Prediction

When the NFL's top defense faces the NFL's top offense, it's anybody's guess as to what's going to happen. New England is on a colossal winning streak, while the 49ers have struggled recently. That being said, Jim Harbaugh's team is one that's known to rise to the occasion and play to their opponents, and with the possibility of sealing the NFC West on the line, we'll go with San Francisco in this one.

The pick: 49ers win 24-20

Odds

The Patriots opened as three-point favorites for the game, but they can be had for as much as six points by some sites, according to OddsShark.

Next Week

The Patriots will hit the road and take on the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, while the 49ers will remain on the road to take on the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks in primetime.

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