By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Many teams can go an entire season without having a must-watch game in prime time, but the Patriots are nice enough to provide you with two of them in consecutive weeks.

The Patriots hardly had any time to bathe in the glory of victory against the AFC-leading Texans, as they immediately had to turn the page and begin to prepare for arguably the NFC’s toughest team, the San Francisco 49ers.

The Niners enter Sunday night’s contest in a rather similar situation to that of the Patriots. Both teams just might feel like the best in their respective conferences, yet both teams will be fighting till the bitter end to earn a first-round bye. The Falcons at 11-2 in the NFC and the Texans with the same record in the AFC are in the driver’s seat to earn home field throughout the postseason, though if either the Niners or Pats win out, they do have a chance to leapfrog the team above them in the standings.

Because of Sunday night’s matchup in Foxboro, of course, that can’t happen. One of these teams has to lose (unless the Niners feel like tying again), so here are four items to watch for Sunday night that will go a long way in determining which team takes a step forward toward earning that bye.

Toughest Test Yet
The Patriots’ offense is very, very good. Historically good, perhaps, if they keep scoring like they do.

The Patriots have scored 472 points and, using their season average, are on pace to score 581 points, just a touchdown short of their record 588 points in 2007. However, if you take their scoring average from Week 8 on, they’re putting up 42.5 points per week (gross, right?). If they do that in their final three games, they’ll pass that record and flirt with 600 points. That’s incredible on its own, but when you factor in the fact that they’re doing it this year despite the fact that the rest of the league has caught up to the no-huddle spread offense and the Patriots and Tom Brady simply do it better than anyone else five years after showing it to the league, well, it’s all the more impressive.

Yet, prolific as that New England offense may be, it has not faced a challenge like San Francisco’s defense.

Consider this: In their 13 games this season, the 49ers have allowed 13 passing touchdowns and just three rushing touchdowns, tied for the league lead in the latter category. The Patriots, meanwhile, have scored 29 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns, the most in the NFL.

It is without a doubt strength vs. strength, but the Patriots proved last week that it might not matter who is on the other side, because they’re going to do whatever they want on offense. Houston entered last week having allowed just two rushing touchdowns total and 87.6 rushing yards per game; the Patriots ran for 130 and a touchdown. The Texans also averaged three sacks per game, but could get Brady just once all game, despite 36 New England passing attempts.

Interestingly, the Patriots may not need a great game from Brady to beat the Niners. In San Francisco’s three losses, the opposing quarterbacks (Christian Ponder, Eli Manning, Sam Bradford) completed 62 of 102 passes (60.8 percent) for 612 yards (204 yards per game), three touchdowns and zero interceptions. For the Niners, ball security has been key, as those three opponents forced seven San Francisco turnovers and gave the ball up just twice. The Patriots lead the league with a plus-24 turnover differential, so that shouldn’t be a problem for them Sunday night. However, “shouldn’t” doesn’t always mean much once the ball is kicked.

This week, San Francisco enters as the No. 2-ranked defense in terms of yards and No. 1 in terms of scoring. The Patriots’ offense enters No. 1 in yards and scoring. You’ve got an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, strength meeting strength, a clash of titans, and so on. It doesn’t really matter which cliche you want to use. You’re going to see some captivating football.

Bright Lights, Big Brady
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Tom Brady has played in many big games over the course of his NFL career. He’s done pretty well in most of them, too, and this season’s been no exception.

Using the admittedly arbitrary system of my own determination of a “big game” (essentially games on Sunday/Monday night or games with broad national or international appeal), Brady’s played in four this season: Sunday night against Baltimore, London game against St. Louis, Thanksgiving night against the Jets and last Monday against Houston. And because it’s always among the most-hyped game of the NFL season, let’s throw in the meeting with Peyton Manning for good measure.

In those five games, Brady is 113-for-169 (66.9 percent) for 1,481 yards (296.2 per game), 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

That’s not too shabby. It’s nothing new, either, as he went 64-for-117 (54.7 percent) for 1,080 yards (360 per game), nine touchdowns and one interception in three prime-time games.

This Sunday, Brady will be back on national TV, under the national spotlight and for just the second time ever facing the team he rooted for as a young fan of football. Don’t be surprised to see the best Brady has to offer.

Gronk Watch?
There’s a zero percent chance that Rob Gronkowski plays Sunday night … right?

It would seem that way, especially considering the Patriots should be able to win their following two games against Jacksonville and Miami without the services of Gronkowski. The Patriots don’t need Gronkowski back in order to finish with 12 wins on the season, but if he’s somehow ready to go Sunday night, do the Patriots give him the go?

If so, it will obviously change the entire dynamic of the game. Gronkowski has missed the last three games with his broken forearm but still entered Week 15 tied for the league lead with 10 receiving touchdowns (A.J. Green caught No. 11 on Thursday night). He practiced Friday and  his questionable status for Sunday may have just been a Bill Belichick ploy to throw a curveball at Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio’s preparations, but if it’s not? Gronk could be a game-changer.

Watch Out For 99
It’s deja vu for the Patriots, who last week had to defend a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who wore jersey No. 99 and will have to do the exact same thing this week.

The secret is out on Aldon Smith, who in his second year leads the NFL with 19.5 sacks, needing just 3.5 sacks in the final three games to pass Michael Strahan for most ever in one season.

While the Patriots will need to beware of Smith, their performance last week against J.J. Watt should provide them with confidence. Watt entered Monday night’s game with 16.5 sacks and 15 passes defended, and he left the game without improving upon either number. With Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly healthy enough to put the starting offensive line back on the field, the Patriots were able to minimize Watt’s impact. A big factor in that regard was also Brady’s ability to rush to get the offense to the line, leading to a good number of mismatches and some quick passes from the quarterback.

This week’s game plan will be very different, but once again, No. 99 on defense will have to be a focal point as Josh McDaniels gets his offense ready to play.

You can expect Smith to be ready, too. He’s recorded at least one sack in every single game since Week 7, including a ridiculous 5.5 sacks against Chicago in Week 11. He had two sacks last week against Miami.

Yet, as is the case with much of this game, Smith will be met by a strength of the Patriots, who despite injuries all year long on the offensive line have allowed just 20 sacks, fifth-fewest in the NFL.

The best chance San Francisco has to win is to shut down Brady, and their best chance of accomplishing that rests on the shoulders of Aldon Smith.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter@michaelFhurley.

Comments (2)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s