The New England Patriots (10-3) return to Foxboro on Sunday night to take on the San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) in a game with great significance to both teams.

The Patriots enter on a roll, winners of seven in a row and fresh off a thumping of the Houston Texans on Monday night. They’ve clinched the AFC East but are holding the #2 seed for the playoffs by a tie-breaker. If they win out their remaining three games they are guaranteed no less than a #2 seed. Should Houston falter in any of their final three games, they could be the #1 seed.

The Niners have not yet clinched their division, they hold a game and half lead over the Seattle Seahawks and still have to play them one more time. They currently hold the #2 seed for the playoffs.

With the two #2 seeds in their respective conferences playing each other this late in the season, this promises to be a physical, hard-hitting, intense battle. This one may possibly have a rematch scheduled in New Orleans in February, so let’s look at how they matchup:

Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots have faced top 5 rushing defenses for three weeks in a row, and this one will be a stern test. After jumping out to big lead, the Patriots were able to run the ball to close out the game against the Texans.

Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead all gave the Patriots some different looks on offense that started slowly but eventually began to find some gaps. Having injured guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly return was huge for the Patriots. This week their job got even tougher going against perhaps the best defense in the NFL, so the offense will have to get creative to run the ball.

The 49ers defense is nearly impossible to get any yardage between the tackles, NT Isaac Sopoaga, and DEs Ray McDonald and Justin Smith are fantastic at stopping the run at the point of attack or penetrating in the backfield. ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are fast, downhill players and fill the gaps as well as anyone.

Look for the Patriots to try to spread the Niners out and run the ball to the outside out of the shotgun. It will serve two purposes, slow down the pass rush of the OLBs and to remain balanced on offense. Running yards will be at a premium against this defense, but the Patriots will have to remain patient with the running game and not give up on it.

49ers Running Game:
The Niners average 161.5 yards on the ground per game, good for 2nd best in the NFL and they can come at you from many sides. It starts with Frank Gore inside the tackles who has already gotten over 1000 yards this season and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Gore gives the Niners the physical presence that can pound the ball for tough yardage or break one for a longer gain. He’s had runs for 10 yards+ in every game this season.

LaMichael James, the speedy rookie running back from Oregon is starting to get his reps now that Kendall Hunter is injured and figures to take on a more prominent role down the stretch. QB Colin Kaepernick is averaging 7.6 yards per carry and their running some of their offense from the ‘Diamond/Pistol Formation’.

It’s a run-based shotgun formation. There are four players in the backfield, with nine players in the offensive box. It confuses the defense with mis-direction and multiple options. If the defense opts to play eight men in the box, it will create one-on-one matchups for the wide receivers.

Against the Dolphins on Sunday, the Niners ran out of this formation 12 times and passed on play-action six times. This week, I expect them to throw more out of this set. This is important because it forces defenses to declare their strength pre-snap by setting their front and their coverage. The Niners can run mis-direction out of this and it gives them an extra body to block in the box, with the extra body coming from the backfield.

Patriots Passing Game:
The Patriots are the #1 offense in the NFL for a good reason and that reason is Tom Brady who is having an MVP type season with 29 TDs against only 4 INTs. The Niners are the #2 pass defense in the league, allowing only 184.7 yards per game, so something will have to give here.

For the Patriots it all comes down to protection, as long as Brady gets the time, he finds the open man and even with Rob Gronkowski out with a broken arm, and with Julian Edelman and Donte Stallworth on IR, the Patriots still have plenty of weapons to throw to.

San Francisco’s corners are good but not great, benefitting from one of the better pass rushes in the league. Carlos Rogers will draw the unenviable task of trying to blanket Wes Welker while Tarell Brown will be covering Brandon Lloyd who enjoyed perhaps his best game as a member of the Patriots against Houston.

The key in this matchup is Aaron Hernandez and Brady will try to move him around to get him the most favorable matchup. The Niners have two very physical and aggressive safeties in Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner and look for Brady to test the waters deep on the safeties trying to take advantage of that aggressiveness.

We said it comes down to protection and that is mainly against the two Smiths although the Niners can bring pressure from a lot of points. Aldon Smith leads the league with 19.5 sacks and is as close to being unblockable as there is in the league. Justin Smith in the interior pocket collapser and can push the line back into the opposing QB.

LT Nate Solder will have his hands full with Smith on the outside and should the need arise; will have help in the backfield or with a TE or WR chipping. The biggest key for the Patriots though will be Mankins keeping Smith inside at bay. As long as Brady can step up in the pocket, he gets rid of the ball quickly enough to negate the edge rush somewhat.

This will be the Patriots passing game’s biggest test this season, the 49ers have only allowed 20+ points five times this season and have only allowed a maximum of 26 points in any game.

49ers Passing Game:
This area of the Niners game is still evolving as Coach Jim Harbaugh is tailoring the offense more to Kaepernick’s talents as he has taken over as the starting QB position from Alex Smith.

San Francisco is not prolific throwing the ball, they remain a run-first team, but what they are is efficient. They excel at moving the chains and wearing the opponent down by keeping the ball on offense.

They have good weapons on offense with WRs Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and excellent TE Vernon Davis; they’ve also used Gore out of the backfield and he has 23 receptions.

Davis in particular will present matchup problems with the NE linebackers who struggle in coverage so look for SF to test the middle of the field often. The Patriots secondary has been playing much better the last four games and with the arrival of CB Aqib Talib, they’ve gotten more aggressive and play more man coverage. Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory will have to help out with coverage on Gore.

One area where SF has struggled has been third down (31.4 percent) and the key from a Patriots perspective will be to get the 49ers in 3rd and long and keep Kaepernick in the pocket and force him to make plays from there. The Patriots are best when forcing turnovers and they’re hoping to use his relative inexperience against him by forcing some mistakes.

We’ve seen what happens when the Patriots allow mobile QBs to get outside (Seattle) and Kaepernick last week had a 50 yard run. DEs Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Trevor Scott must maintain their discipline and not allow Kaepernick to get to the outside, while pushing the pocket back.

Special Teams:
The 49ers normally reliable kicker David Akers is having a rough season, having missed 7 of 15 field goals from 40+ yards which hurts a team that doesn’t score a lot of touchdowns. But where he’s struggled, P Andy Lee is having an outstanding season. Lee is averaging 47.3 yards per punt with over a 42 yard net average. He’s put 31 punts inside the 20 and has only had four touchbacks.

On the Patriots side, Stephen Gostkowski is having issues of his own this season in the field goal department although his kickoffs have been booming through the end zone with regularity. P Zoltan Mesko after a slow start has been coming on and is playing at his best right now.

Both teams have solid coverage units and both teams are missing returners, SF with Hunter and the Pats with Julian Edelman. The 49ers have familiar face Ted Ginn and may mix in James in the return game.

 “X”-Factors:
The Patriots jump out of the frying pan and into the fire with having Houston in on Monday night to having the 49ers come calling on Sunday. The Niners are looking to wrap up their division and a bye for the playoffs while the Patriots are now able to set their sights on the #1 seed.

The Patriots under Bill Belichick at home late in the season have a ridiculous amount of success because they are always grounded and very well prepared. Since 2010 the Patriots are 21-0 in the second half of the season because Belichick always puts them in a position to succeed.

Much the same can be said for the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh, they missed going to the Super Bowl in 2011 by the slightest of margins and this is a team that feels it is ready to take that next step. They don’t look past the week facing them and they should be ready to play on the national stage Sunday night.

Conclusions/Prediction:
The Patriots have the weapons to mix it up better than anyone in the league and they are awfully tough to defend with Tom Brady having a plethora of weapons at his disposal even without Rob Gronkowski. The 49ers have an outstanding defense and will be the biggest test for Brady and Co. thus far this year.

From a Patriots perspective they will probably attempt to attack outside the numbers in the passing game with the occasional shot down the middle. Brady is the best at reading the defense at the line, recognizing what they’re doing and getting the ball out quickly.

The 49ers defense does very few substitutions and this may be a key for later in the game. Look for Brady to run the no-huddle/hurry up offense a lot in this one to try and wear down and tire the defense. If they can do this successfully, the pass rush will lessen as the game wears on and allow Brady that extra half-second that is needed.

On defense, expect the Patriots to remain in base defense almost exclusively in this one. With the 49ers excellent running game and the ‘Pistol’ formation, they’ll be looking to shut down the run as best they can and force Kaepernick to throw. Look for a similar game plan that they used against Denver in the playoffs last season.

While Kaepernick is a much, much better passer than Tebow, the key will be containment. The DEs will have to stay disciplined and not allow Kaepernick to scramble to the outside where he’s a big threat to break off a big run or throw. That is a losing proposition. The biggest question mark will be how effective they will be defending the ‘Pistol’ formation where the Niners can run or throw.

Kaepernick is going to have to throw the ball for the Niners to win this game, and if the Patriots can keep him in the pocket, they can possibly force a turnover or two, an area where they excel. The Patriots will have to do a great job of covering Davis who can move the chains for the 49ers and keep the offense on the bench.

The Patriots defense is much improved over the past four weeks and they’ll need Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love to step up in a big way against the potent running game of SF. But they’ll also be called upon to push the pocket back, SF has allowed 38 sacks this season and the Patriots will want to force them into 3rd and long situations where the offense is one-dimensional.

This one can go either way, but with the defense turning the corner for the Patriots and their ability to spread the ball around, coupled with a home field advantage, the home team wins a close one. Patriots 24-21