Week 15 of the 2012 NFL season is full of exciting matchups. Playoff positions are on the line and teams are fighting for first-round playoff byes. The most intriguing of these exciting matchups comes on Sunday Night Football when the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers take on the AFC East-leading New England Patriots at Foxboro stadium. This game could be a potential Super Bowl preview, but for now, we’ll just preview this game. Part two will preview the Patriots offense taking on the 49ers defense.

It’s become common knowledge around the world of football that the 49ers have one of-if not the- best defenses in football. They are allowing an NFL-best 14.2 points per game and are only one of two defenses to allow less than 300 yards of total offense per game. The defense has a pro-bowl player at almost every position and has shut down other high-powered offenses this season (Packers and Saints). In order for the defense to shut down Tom Brady, they’ll need to take a page out of the New York Giants playbook. The reason the Giants have been able to play so well against the Patriots over the past few years is because they can get pressure on Brady with four men. The four men pressure allows the secondary to adequately cover Brady’s receivers. The 49ers want to slow down the Patriots’ offense. They’ll have to get to Brady without sacrificing coverage. They should have no issues stopping the run, so the focus needs to be on slowing Brady down.

Aldon Smith and his 19.5 sacks will be leading the charge against Brady. Often working in tandem with Justin Smith, the prior Smith has been getting to the quarterbacks all season. The 49ers front seven are capable of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and will need the Smiths and their other primary pass rusher Ahmad Brooks to be able to get to Brady without extra help from blitzes. If they can get consistent three and four man pressure, it could be enough to slow Brady and the New England offense down enough to give the 49ers’ offense an opportunity to capitalize and win this game.

The key matchup that the Patriots will likely turn to is slot receiver Wes Welker versus whoever covers him. The 49ers struggled mightily against another slot receiver with an incredibly similar skill set and makeup to Welker. In their matchup against the Rams on November 11th, Amendola was able to pull in 11 of the 12 passes thrown his way for 102 yards. While he didn’t burn the 49ers for a lot of yards, he seemingly converted a first down with every catch. The Patriots will no doubt look to exploit that matchup with Welker, who has become one of the premier receivers in the game. Carlos Rogers, who covered Amendola, doesn’t have the speed to cover quick slot receivers well. If no change is made in covering the slot, expect Brady to connect with Welker plenty of times for a lot of yards. The best way the 49ers can try to contain Welker would be to put young corner Chris Culliver on him. Culliver is quicker than Rogers, so he may be able to stay with Welker better than Rogers would.

Whether the 49ers make that slot corner adjustment or not, expect the Patriots to throw often against a secondary that is vulnerable against big plays, despite ranking second in terms of yards allowed passing. Both offenses will have their hands full in what is sure to become an instant classic. Final Prediction: 49ers leave Foxboro victorious with win: 27-24