Previewing the Patriots

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The 49ers face their first AFC opponent of the 2008 season this Sunday when they host the New England Patriots.

Despite easily handling the Kansas City Chiefs in week one, New England suffered a colossal loss when Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady blew his knee out in the game.

While some wrote the Patriots off after Brady's injury, New England has far from let the curtain fall of their hopes for a Super Bowl repeat.

As Brady said, "I like our chances."

Without him though, the 2-1 Patriots are 1-1 with Matt Cassel leading the team to a victory over the Jets in his first start at quarterback. Cassel is 48 of 72 for 448 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception for an overall 87.0 QB Rating.

And whereas the Patriots passing offense ranked number one in 2007 under the command of Brady, the offense currently sits at 24th with Cassel running the show.

Another notable stat is the Patriots offensive sack count. Brady was sacked only 21 times in 2007, but 2008 has been a different tale for his backup. Cassel has already gone down 9 times on the season. The uncharacteristic sack count for a New England offensive line that features Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light, Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins and Pro Bowl center Dan Koppen is mostly a reflection of Cassel's inexperience. The group does have a new starter at right guard with Billy Yates getting the nod over Russ Hochstein, who now sees action only in a tight end role on short yardage situations.

Through the air, Cassel does have some serious weapons to work with. Randy Moss re-signed with the team this offense and is second on the team with 12 catches for 163 yards, althoughsurprisingly, only one touchdown. The Patriots have been using more screens and working the underneath routes with the quickness of receiver Wes Welker, who leads the team with 19 receptions for 178 yards.

New England might opt to take more shots deep to Moss this week after watching tape of the way the Saints erupted against the 49ers secondary.

With Donte' Stallworth departing after one year with New England, Jabar Gaffney has stepped into the role of the team's third receiver. He has six catches for 51 yards, and has accounted for the Patriots only other passing touchdown on the season.

New England could get back another passing threat this week in tight end Ben Watson, who had been out with a knee injury. Watson has only one catch on the season after finishing the 2007 year with 36 receptions for 389 yards and six touchdowns.

Former Raiders running back LaMont Jordan currently sits at the top of the Patriots rushing statistics with 19 carries for 90 yards and a 4.7 average. Sammy Morris, a 9-year veteran, has received eight more carries on the year, but for only 80 yards total and a 3.0 average.
New England's starting back, third-year player Laurence Maroney should return from a shoulder injury that prevented him from playing in the Patriots upset loss to the Dolphins prior to last weekend's bye.

Defensively, New England couldn't hold onto their shutdown corner in Asante Samuel, who commanded large dollars on the free agency market this off-season. Nickel corner Randall Gay, who the 49ers saw last week in New Orleans, also departed the Patriots secondary. Still, the Patriots backend has fared well against the pass with an NFL overall 12th ranked unit.

Hard hitting veteran safety Rodney Harrison holds the most notoriety in the Patriots secondary with two Pro Bowls to his credit. James Sanders has been getting the starts at free safety, although he's split time with Brandon Meriweather.

The Patriots signed cornerback Lewis Sanders from the Falcons in free agency and still list him as their starter on the left side, but nine-year veteran corner Deltha O'Neal, who latched on with New England in early September has started the last two contests. Ellis Hobbs stars opposite O'Neal, and he and Meriweather each have one interception on the year.

The Patriots 3-4 defense has been susceptible to the run this season, dropping to a 25th ranked run defense after their week three game when Miami rushed for 216 yards and four touchdowns. All four touchdowns came on direct snaps to the Dolphins running backs.

Up front the Patriots feature three returning starters in Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. Seymour enjoyed five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl from 2002-2006, while Wilford, the Patriots big man in the middle was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2007.

Longtime veteran linebacker Junior Seau didn't return this off-season, and has been replaced by New England's number one draft pick, Jerod Mayo. Mayo is second behind Harrison in total tackles with 25 stops to date. The rookie has come along quickly, aided by the guidance of his inside backer partner, veteran Tedy Bruschi, who has 24 total tackles. Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas start at the two outside backer positions and are tied with two sacks on the season.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, is 7 of 7 on field goals this season. His longest kick was from 44 yards out against the Dolphins.

Punter Chris Hanson is in his second season with the Patriots, but his 10th in the NFL. Hanson owns a 47.3 average and a 37.6 net. His longest punt of the year was a 70-yarder.
Ellis Hobbs is New England's featured kickoff returner and owns a long return of 81 yards on the year. He also set an NFL record in 2007 with an 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Jets.

Backup running back Kevin Faulk is the Patriots punt returner with 5 returns on the season for a 17.4 average, and a long of 24.

New England's coverage units have been solid, allowing a long kickoff return of 31 yards and a long punt return of only 10 yards.

The Patriots will roll into San Francisco fresh off their bye, and likely eager to recover from the shocking 38-13 lopsided defeat by their divisional opponents. The 49ers likewise need to regroup after a letdown performance on the road in New Orleans, and capitalize on their home field advantage.

The Candlestick crowd this Sunday is expected to be an exuberant one as the Faithful also anticipate the retirement of Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young's jersey at halftime.

Kickoff is at 1:15PM PST.

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