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December 15. 2012 11:55PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats must play 49ers Ram-tough

While high above the Atlantic, flying home after putting a 38-point hurting on what in London looked to be a hapless team, the Patriots could've hardly expected it would be the Rams who offered indications of what it might take for New England to win one of its most challenging games of the season.

But with the 49ers coming to Foxborough tonight, that's surely among the places the Pats' preparations had to start, considering that since leaving Wembley Stadium, St. Louis has played nearly 10 full quarters against San Francisco and yet hasn't lost to its divisional leader. The first of two overtime clashes finished in a tie, the second in a Rams win, plus they're the only games the 49ers haven't won since Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback - so it would only make sense for New England to know what gave trouble to the team some consider to be the best in the NFC.

Here's a look at what the Patriots would've discovered about those two games:

-- By measure of yardage per attempt, the 49ers are the NFL's second-best defense against both the run and the pass, but the Rams ran the ball effectively enough to make it easier to throw the ball. In the first meeting they piled up 159 yards on the ground - a season-worst for San Francisco - and correspondingly Sam Bradford struck for 275. The numbers were smaller the second time, at 85 and 221, but still St. Louis' 751 yards of total offense is exactly 200 more than the 49ers' typical allowance for a two-game stretch this season.

-- A big part of that attack was due to San Francisco's inability to stop the slot receiver. Danny Amendola made 11 catches in the first game - and though he was injured for the second matchup, Chris Givens came in as his replacement and had 11 grabs, too. This has to have Wes Welker and Tom Brady licking their chops.

-- It will be key for the Patriots to gain their yardage in chunks. Only Pittsburgh has allowed fewer yards than San Francisco, but St. Louis showed that big plays are the key to scoring. In the tie, the Rams had a play of at least 19 yards on each of their four scoring drives. In the win, they had five plays of 19 or more, and while scoring on just one of those series, the others came on possessions that ended with a missed field goal and a failed fourth down at the 49ers' 4. It's not easy, as the Niners have allowed just 27 passes of 20-plus yards this season, though seven of them came to the Rams.

-- On the other side, St. Louis didn't let San Francisco make many big plays. Kaepernick had a 50-yard run, but the Rams allowed only three other gains of at least 16 yards in the second game, after allowing nothing over 20 - and nothing over 14 until the fourth quarter - in the earlier meeting. Accordingly, a team that averages 24 points a game was held to 37 over two.

-- The 49ers are the second-best rushing offense in football, but the Rams held Frank Gore in check. He had 97 yards on 21 carries in the first game, then was limited to 58 yards on 23 attempts the second time - and 23 of those came on one haul. Averaging 5.6 yards per carry against everyone else, he gained just 3.5 against St. Louis this season.

-- The Rams committed only one turnover in two games. San Francisco has failed to create a turnover twice this season, and lost both games; on the other side, the 49ers have totaled seven giveaways in their three losses, compared with only five in their 10 other contests.

-- St. Louis benefited from some unconventional offense. The first game featured a pair of first downs via fake punt, then in the second they scored the bulk of their points via a safety and a fumble recovery touchdown. San Francisco has yielded 18 fewer points than any other team. The conventional route isn't easy.

-- Early downs mattered more than third down. In the early matchup, the Rams were up 14-0 before they even faced a third down, and by getting into manageable distances they converted 44 percent against a unit allowing a 31 percent conversion rate for the season. In the later matchup the Rams converted only 19 percent - but moved the chains 10 times on first or second down.

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UNDERRATED: Second down. First down is great for the 49ers on both sides of scrimmage; their defense allows the fewest yards (4.2) while their offense gains the third-most (6.3).

That excellence translates to getting off the field defensively, but offensively the 49ers rank 21st on third-down conversion rate - suggesting the Patriots could put themselves in advantageous positions by winning the oft-overlooked second down.

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OVERRATED: Vernon Davis' role. Over the past three weeks - since the offense has really transitioned to Kaepernick's - Davis has been targeted only five times, totaling three catches and 19 yards. The Pats struggle with tight ends, so he could be a factor, but Michael Crabtree is San Francisco's primary pass weapon now.

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KEEP AN EYE ON: Kick returns. With cold conditions expected at kickoff, kickoffs may not travel as far as usual - and that might create opportunities for the Patriots, because the 49ers (at an average of 28.1) allow more yards per return than any team in football. They've yet to give up a score, but in an expectedly tight game a slight tilt in field position could be enormous.

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KEY MATCHUP: Aldon Smith vs. Patriots' pass protection. The NFL's sack leader has 19.5 of those this season, though he has three games with no sacks - and the 49ers lost two of them. The rest of his team has just 12.5, so Nate Solder's ability to hold up through an abdominal injury may be critical for New England.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: This season the 49ers are 9-1 when allowing fewer than 325 total yards; they're 0-2-1 when opponents gain more than that number. The Patriots have gained at least 347 in all but the Miami game.

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Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com. Twitter: @davedonofrio

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