Christmas comes early for NFL fans this year. With 24 teams still mathematically alive in the playoff race, Week 15 boasts a bevy of games with major postseason implications. In fact, six games feature teams that are both above .500, and five feature at least one team with a clinching scenario. Let's take a closer look at these six Statement Sunday matchups.
What's at stake?
It doesn't get much better or bigger than this. The Patriots and 49ers are the toughest teams to prepare for in the NFL, because they change game plans so much each week. They also could be the two best teams in the league. Both teams are fighting to earn a playoff bye, and still remain in the running for their conferences' respective No. 1 seeds. Unlike New England, San Francisco still has to worry about winning its division. A loss in New England creates a scenario where the 49ers have to win in Seattle in Week 16 just to hold on to the NFC West. That game is on "Sunday Night Football," too. The Football Gods are smiling on us this season.
Best of 49ers vs. PatriotsCheck out the best photos of 49ers vs. Patriots matchups through the years.
Player to watch
Justin Smith, DT, 49ers: While Aldon Smith wreaks havoc along the edges, the 49ers will move Justin all over the defensive front; the pressure he provides up the middle collapses the pocket, forcing opposing quarterbacks to run right into Aldon's waiting arms. More ...
Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers: I think the 49ers can win. I think San Francisco matches up very well; the Niners can stop the run, and they have the pass rush to get Tom Brady out of the rocking chair his offensive line provides for him. The 49ers also have the tools on offense to make plays against New England's defense. The question is, do the 49ers have a quarterback who can win in a possible Super Bowl preview? The entire world will find out. More ...
Matchup to watch
Patrick Willis vs. Tom Brady: The chess match between Willis, the key defender for the 49ers, and Brady will be a fascinating one to follow. Brady loves to change up his tempo; Willis will need to keep his troops mentally locked in. Brady also loves to manipulate linebackers with his eyes, opening up windows for his talented tight end, Aaron Hernandez. More ...
Did you know?
At least one of these teams has appeared in 12 of the past 31 Super Bowls. ... This game is a matchup of the league's No. 1 scoring offense (Patriots) and the league's No. 1 scoring defense (49ers). ... The 49ers are 3-1 since QB Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job. They are averaging 2.1 more points per game since the switch. ... Kaepernick has had back-to-back games with a 50-yard rush. ... The Patriots have scored 284 points in their past seven games -- more than 13 NFL teams have scored in the entire season. ... The Patriots are 21-0 in games in the second half of the season since 2010. In those 21 games, they have a plus-52 turnover differential. ... WR Wes Welker needs five receptions to become the first player in NFL history with five 100-reception seasons. ... The Patriots' three losses this season are by a combined four points.
Elliot Harrison's prediction
I predicted Patriots 27, Texans 24 in Week 14. That worked out. Or not. Expect Colin Kaepernick to spin Patriots defenders a few times while performing better than Matt Schaub did Monday night. Frank Gore will churn out 82 yards and a touchdown on the Patriots' front line, but in the end, Tom Brady's pinpoint passing will make the league's best secondary not under fire for alleged Adderall use look run-of-the-mill. I don't estimate Brady's final numbers to be 350 and five, but I do see 227 yards, two touchdowns, and a conservative game plan that will win a sexy interconference battle. Patriots 27, 49ers 24. (See predictions for every Week 15 game.)