FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Running against the San Francisco 49ers is tough. Passing isn’t any easier. And scoring is a huge challenge.
Unless, perhaps, when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots face them on Sunday night.
“Brady’s going to make plays. His offense is going to make plays,” 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “Our defense is going to make plays. We just want to make more than him at the end of the game.”
Brady leads the NFL’s highest-scoring offense. NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith spearheads a 49ers defense that has allowed the fewest points.
So when two of the top Super Bowl contenders meet, it will be strength against strength.
The Patriots (10-3) have clinched the AFC East and are tied with Denver for the second-best record in the conference, but hold the tiebreaker because they beat the Broncos. The 49ers (9-3-1) have the second-best mark in the NFC and can lock up first place in the West by beating the Patriots if Seattle loses to Buffalo.
But that won’t be easy.
Brady has made lots of superior defenses look soft. And the Patriots have won their last 20 games at home in December.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have a quarterback making just his fifth NFL start. The mobile Colin Kaepernick had strong performances in his first two starts, but the offense struggled in the past two games despite having the league’s second-ranked rushing attack.
It’s on defense where the 49ers excel. They’ve allowed just 14.2 points per game.
The Patriots have scored more than 26 in 10 games.
“Tom Brady’s mechanics are really good and they do a good job disguising things,” Smith said, “so you have to not only be disciplined but try to anticipate and pay attention to the film so, come game time, we’re not caught off-guard by anything.”
The two-time MVP quarterback is having another brilliant season with 29 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He’s been sacked only 20 times.
But here comes Smith.
“I face a bunch of good pass rushers,” Patriots left tackle Nate Solder said. “It seems like every week it’s a top pass rusher. So I guess that’s the excitement of playing in the NFL.”
Smith was drafted with the seventh pick in 2011, just four spots before Houston’s J.J. Watt, and both have made powerful impacts. But Monday night, Watt was held without a sack for only the third time this season.
What worked against the Texans, though, may not work against the 49ers.
“They’re different schemes and different players,” Brady said. “I think they both rush the passer well. I think they’re both good in coverage. That’s why you win a lot of games, because you’re really fundamentally sound in all of those areas. But in terms of style, they are very different teams. But it’s equally as big of a challenge for us.”
For the 49ers, too. They can’t focus too much on the passing game, not with Stevan Ridley leading the NFL’s seventh best running game with 1,082 yards.
So too much pressure on the quarterback can be a bad thing.
“Any team that just goes out there and blitzes away is going to get blown out,” San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said. “You can’t do that. You have to mix it up. Any quarterback that’s this good — that’s an A-plus at the helm — you have to mix some things. … With our personnel and our scheme, I believe that allows us to do it.”
There’s no better test of that than the Patriots.