Tom Brady and the Patriots are on a bit of a roll. You may have read that somewhere.
New England's offense ranks first in the league, has scored more than 40 points five times this season and has won by an average of three touchdowns during a current seven-game winning streak. Brady, meanwhile, has thrown 19 touchdowns against just one interception during the same streak.
The 49ers, however, have a secret weapon: Their nickel defense.
The Patriots have been effective because they are able to spread defenses thin with multi-receiver formations, and then run the ball up the middle when defenses counter with extra defensive backs. They rank 5th in the NFL in the passing game; 7th in the run. The 49ers', however, have one of the best nickel defenses in the league, one that fares particularly well against the run because it employs two inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
The 49ers were primarily in their nickel - and sometimes, dime - defenses this year against the Packers, the Lions and the Saints, all of them prolific passing teams. The 49ers held those quarterbacks to passer ratings of 93.3, 78.9 and 86.1 respectively, and San Francisco won all three games.
Safety Donte Whitner noted that the 49ers' safeties typically don't have to play close to the line of scrimmage to help out the run game. Instead, they can play back and help take away Brady's options, especially his deep options.
"I would say that it evens things out," Whitner said of the nickel defense. "When they watch our film, they see that. When we watch our film, we see that. And I believe it's going to be a good game, just because of that."
- Matt Barrows