Pretty much everybody and their mother agree that the key match-up on Sunday night will be Aldon Smith vs. everybody who tries to block him. Or, rather, the 49ers pass rush vs. the Patriots o-line. Every pass rusher on the 49ers should be humming "let the Brady-s hit the floor" until the game starts. A sacked Brady is an inefficient Brady. We need that, because the Patriots are one of the most efficient teams in the NFL - and all that efficiency comes from their offense.
This leads to a new tool I want to start using in my evaluations of teams and players: the advanced Football statistics that can be found over at Football Outsiders. I love statistical analysis of sports - probably because I am a Baseball fan - and I have spent the past few weeks trying to familiarize myself with FOs statistical methods so that I don't embarrass myself by using them. Spoiler: I will embarrass myself. They can be complicated.
But back to New England's efficiency. As a team, they have the number one total DVOA, which measures how well the offense achieves successful yards (or as FO puts it "five yards on third-and4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10"), how well the defense prevents these yards, and a special teams ranking. I would highly suggest checking out this page. It explains their statistical methodology, and is incredibly interesting.
New England's total DVOA? 41.8%. That means they play 41.8% better than the average team. Not too shabby, eh? And, just because, the 49ers' total DVOA is 34.8%, which is third in the league behind only the Patriots and the Broncos. Whereas the 49ers' total comes from an offensive ranking of 20.1% (which is second in the league, behind only the Patriots - yay our offense!) and a -15.9% defensive ranking (which is 4th in the league - and remember, defensive rankings are good when negative because you want to prevent yards) and -1.2% special teams ranking (boo!), the Patriots have the vast majority of their total DVOA come from their 35.7% offense. That's crazy. Their defense is a measly 0.3%. This team is truly built around their offense. We, clearly, are more balanced.
And the man who drives this offense is Tom Brady. Sacking him will be imperative. And unfortunately, this is tough. According to FO, the Patriots have the second best o-line at pass protecting, with a 4.1% Adjusted Sack Rate, "which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent."
In contrast, the 49ers pass rush is not as good. With 32 sacks on the season and an Adjusted Sack Rate of 6.5%, the 49ers come in at a solid 17th place. When you think about it, though, it sort of makes sense. Aldon Smith really does carry the pass rush load. That guy is an animal. Moreover, we don't blitz a ton because we can get more pressure from four guys than most teams. We are really good a flushing QBs out of the pocket with only a few rushers. So, in light of this, maybe we should expect some more blitzes than normal. Maybe.
But at the end of the day, as I said above, it probably comes down to Aldon Smith. If it were our pass rush unit vs. the Patriots' pass protection, we would probably be screwed. The stats say their unit is better. But, Aldon Smith is crazy, and he can only be blocked by a couple of guys. Moreover, he has been getting better and better as the season goes on. I think he can buck the stats.
Let's hope he does.