Other 49ers-Patriots matchups to watch

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Other 49ers-Patriots matchups to watch

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Over the past three days, we've written about the top three 49ers-Patriots matchups for Sunday night's game.

1. Ultra-talented 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will face a great learning experience against Bill Belichick's defense. It figures to be his greatest mental challenge as a starter.

2. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith had success against Patriots left tackle Nate Solder as a 2009 collegiate player. An identical showing would place the 49ers' second-year player in the NFL record book.

3. And cornerback Carlos Rogers will face his stiffest test, as he goes up against Wes Welker. Quarterback Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, and it's no secret he will look to get the ball to his slot receiver . . . repeatedly.

Here are six other key matchups to consider for Sunday's game:

RDT Justin Smith vs. LG Logan Mankins: It's strength vs. strength, as the 49ers' most physical defender goes up against the Patriots' most physical lineman. The 49ers figure to be in their nickel defense for most of the game, so they'll need Smith to be stout against running back Stevan Ridley, who has 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.

ILB Patrick Willis vs. TE Aaron Hernandez: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio must decide how to account for Hernandez. When the Patriots go with multi-receiver formations, Willis will likely be matched against Hernandez in coverage. The other option for the 49ers is to play more dime coverage with fourth cornerback Perrish Cox entering the game in place of Willis.

RG Alex Boone vs. DT Vince Wilfork: The 49ers will want to run between the tackles to chew up clock and keep the Patriots' offense off the field. If Boone can win this matchup in the run game against a four-time Pro Bowl player, that'll be huge bonus for the 49ers.

RB Frank Gore vs. ILB Jerod Mayo: Gore will make his 100th career start. It's imperative that he has success between the tackles to make Kaepernick's play-action passing more effective. Gore enters the game 29 yards behind Joe "The Jet" Perry for most rushing yards in franchise history, including Perry's two seasons with the 49ers in the All-America Football Conference. (Officially, stats from the AAFC are not recognized by NFL teams.) Mayo is the Patriots' leading tackler with 158 stops (100 solo), according to the film review from New England coaches.

WR Michael Crabtree vs. LCB Aqib Talib: Crabtree is the 49ers' top receiving threat with 66 catches for 761 yards and five touchdowns. Talib immediately took over as a starter after the Patriots acquired him in a Nov. 1 trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talib sustained a hip injury Monday night, but he should be good to go on Sunday night.

TE Vernon Davis vs. S Devin McCourty: Davis has not been much of a factor the second half of the season. He has more than 37 yards receiving only once in the 49ers' past eight games. In the past three games, Davis has three catches for 19 yards. McCourty started the first six games at left cornerback before moving to safety.

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."