49ers key matchup No. 1: Kaepernick vs. Belichick

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49ers key matchup No. 1: Kaepernick vs. Belichick

This is the final part in a series that spotlights three 49ers-Patriots matchups to watch Sunday, 5:20 p.m. (NBC-TV), at Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.

49ers QB Colin Kaeperick vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick

Tale of the tape
Kaepernick (7): 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, second season, Nevada
Belichick: 165-62 (.727) record in 13 seasons with Patriots

When 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made the decision to replace veteran Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback, this game on the schedule loomed large.

It's not necessarily that Kaepernick gives the 49ers the best chance of going on the road and defeating the New England Patriots. And it's not that this a "must-win" for the 49ers, who own a 1 1/2-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West with three games remaining.

In making the switch at quarterback, Harbaugh's actions said he believes Kaepernick will give the 49ers the best chance to win in the playoffs after gaining experience with seven regular-season starts to finish the year.

And Sunday night's game in Foxboro, Mass., should provide Kaepernick with the best learning opportunity any young quarterback can experience.

"It's a big challenge," Harbaugh said. "(It's a) big task for our entire football team. I think everybody looks at it that way."

There's no other way to look at it.

Kaepernick has made four consecutive starts, during which time the 49ers have compiled a 3-1 record. Kaepernick lit it up in his first NFL start, a 32-7 victory over the Chicago Bears. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Kaepernick's passing yards have fallen in each start to 231 at New Orleans, to 208 at St. Louis, to 185 against Miami. He did not throw a touchdown pass in the past two games. But he also did not throw an interception, either.

He has proven to be as much of a threat with his legs. Kaepernick has rushed for 351 yards (7.6 average) and five touchdowns on the season.

"He's an explosive player, he can make big plays," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "The offensive system they run with him in there has the element of the option, the pistol offense, that type of thing. It's another thing to prepare for."

And there is little doubt the Patriots (10-3) will be prepared. In fact, the 49ers need New England to be at its schematic best on Sunday to prepare Kaepernick for anything he could face once the playoffs begin.

"They give you a lot of different looks on defense," Kaepernick said. "You just have to be prepared for it. You have to be ready for their disguises and different coverages, different fronts they're going to give you.

"It'll be a great challenge. It's a great opportunity to show what we're capable of."

After averaging 14.8 yards per pass completion in his first two starts, Kaepernick was limited by the Rams and Dolphins to mostly underneath pass that averaged only 10.1 yards per completion.

The Rams pressured Kaepernick, preventing him time in the pocket to showcase his powerful arm with passes down the field. Belichick is sure to come up with a plan against Kaepernick that will provide a valuable lesson for the remainder of the season.

Report: 49ers free agent ILB signing with rival Seahawks

Report: 49ers free agent ILB signing with rival Seahawks

Michael Wilhoite has spent his whole five-year NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers.

But now the free agent inside linebacker is reportedly switching sides in the NFC West rivalry. Wilhoite is set to sign with the Seattle Seahawks, according to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network. 

Terms of the deal are unknown at this time. 

Wilhoite, 30, played in all 16 games last season for the 49ers, starting in only six. In 2016 he recorded 55 tackles, 30 less than 2015 in four less games, and forced one fumble. 

After earning a promotion from the 49ers' practice squad in 2012, Wilhoite's career in the Bay Area comes to an end with 268 tackles and three interceptions in 65 games. 

NFL owners mull cutting regular-season OT to 10 minutes

NFL owners mull cutting regular-season OT to 10 minutes

NEW YORK -- NFL owners will consider proposals next week to cut regular-season overtime from 15 minutes to 10; eliminate players leaping over the line on kick plays; and expansion of coaches' challenges and what can be reviewed by officials.

In what promises to be a busy annual meeting next week in Phoenix that will include discussing the Raiders' potential relocation from Oakland to Las Vegas, the 32 owners also will vote on changing the mechanics on replay reviews and other items intended to reduce downtime during games.

The Eagles proposed four rules changes, including abolishing the leaping techniques that league football operations director Troy Vincent said Thursday "don't belong in the game."

Seattle and Buffalo co-authored a proposal allowing a coach to challenge any officiating decision, whether a foul is called or not.

"That is a significant change to our current replay rule and it is something that will be on the floor and will be debated next week," NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino said.

Another major change would be the reduction of overtime in-season; the extra period in the playoffs would remain at 15 minutes. The powerful competition committee, of which Vincent and Blandino are members, believed it's a player safety issue, noting that number of snaps for games going to OT - especially deep into the overtime - is excessive. Especially if a team has a quick turnaround.

"We don't know where a team is going to be playing the next week, it could be four days later," said committee chairman Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons. "We felt we should put an end to it. We don't think it will lead to more ties. Could it? It could, but we are not concerned with that."

As for changing the format of overtime to ensure both teams always get a possession - a popular topic after how the Super Bowl ended - Blandino said the league's wants to keep the element of sudden death in the extra period.

The "leaper rule" has taken some priority among competition committee members, the players' union and coaches. Vincent said coaches have begun scheming how to defense it, which can "create a real safety issue."

"It is really in the best interest of the game" to outlaw leaping on kicks," Vincent added.

McKay noted that the NCAA is in the process of passing a similar ban on the technique.

During the meetings that run from Sunday to Wednesday, the teams will be shown plays the competition committee believes should result in suspensions or ejections. Game officials already have had the leeway to eject players, but it rarely has happened; there were three in 2016.

"They don't happen very often, let's give the players credit," McKay said. "We have 40,000 plays in a year. We'll show a tape that will have four or five plays that would warrant suspension. This is not a widespread situation."

Added Vincent, a former NFL defensive back: "When you see the plays, they are catastrophic. We had two players who did not return for the season. They are high-impact plays that belong out of the game. It will be a real point of emphasis this season."