49ers at Patriots -- Week 15

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. (FieldTurf)

High of 40, Low of 28. Light icy mix late. Cloudy. Chilly.

Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)

Patriots by 5.5

: 49ers (9-3-1, NFC West 2-1-1); Patriots (10-3, AFC East 5-0)

Past results:
Two most recent meetings -- Oct. 5, 2008: Patriots 30, 49ers 21; Jan. 2, 2005: Patriots 21, 49ers 7. Series record: 49ers lead 7-4.

What matters: What used to seem like a forgone conclusion for San Francisco -- the NFC West title -- no longer is. With a 1.5-game lead over Seattle with three games remaining, the 49ers' road to a division title will be difficult. New England comes into Sunday's game with a seven-game winning streak, fresh off a 42-14 thumping of then 11-1 Houston. If the 49ers get by New England, they're in good shape, but a loss sets up a near must-win next week on the road at Seattle, where the Seahawks have yet to lose this season. Although, that does include the "Fail Mary" game against Green Bay. The meeting in New England also has potential to be a Super Bowl preview.

Who matters: The opponent is New England, so, yes, Tom Brady matters. He grew up almost directly between the 49ers' practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif., and where they play their home games at Candlestick Park and grew up a fan of the team. Much to the chagrin of 49ers' fans, Brady's career path is often compared to that of Joe Montana. Brady is in the midst of the 45-game streak with at least one touchdown pass, which ranks third all time. With 167 yards passing, he'll become the fifth player in NFL history with at least five 4,000-yard seasons.

Key matchups: 49ers LB Aldon Smith vs. Patriots LT Nate Solder -- The duo squared off in Big-12 play when Smith was at Missouri and Solder was at Colorado and it didn't end well for Solder as Smith racked up three sacks -- though Smith remembered it as four. Getting pressure on Brady is difficult -- he's only been sacked 20 times this year -- but it'll be imperative for the 49ers to buck some trends if they expect to leave New England with a victory. ... 49ers CB Carlos Rogers vs. Patriots WR Wes Welker -- Welker in the slot is about as tough a cover as there is in the league, especially with Brady getting him the ball. He'll be Rogers' assignment for most of the game, which appears to be an advantage for New England. Players like New York's Victor Cruz and St. Louis' Danny Amendola have had success out of the slot against Rogers. 

Injuries of note: WR Mario Manningham (shoulder) was limited in practice all week and was officially listed as doubtful. LB Smith (shoulder), LB Tavares Gooden (ribs) and FB Bruce Miller (shoulder) were also limited in practice throughout the week, but all three are expected to play. The trio were all listed as probable. Also listed on the final injury report, all as probable, were K David Akers (pelvis), LB Navorro Bowman (shoulder), CB Tarell Brown (shoulder), CB Chris Culliver (knee), RB Frank Gore (wrist), CB Rogers (knee), DT Will Tukuafu (wrist) and LB Patrick Willis (shoulder).

Inside stuff: Both teams have trends working in their favor. For San Francisco, playing in primetime has worked out about as well as possible this year. The 49ers are 4-0 in those types of games, having outscored their opponents 96-35 in those games. On the flip side, New England hasn't lost a home game in December since 2002, a string of 20 consecutive games.

Stat you should know: San Francisco (12) and New England (10) rank first in their respective conferences with the least number of giveaways.

Looking ahead: After the trip to New England, San Francisco will be right back in primetime next Sunday against NFC West rival Seattle. A loss to the Patriots, coupled with a Seattle win against Buffalo would mean first place would be on the line when the teams meet in Seattle. The 49ers host Arizona to close the regular season.

Prediction: Patriots 27, 49ers 24

Follow 49ers reporter Kyle Bonagura on Twitter @CBS49ers and @KyleBonagura.