New England's starters should make an early exit against the lowly 49ers.
FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots are aiming for their third Super Bowl championship in four years. The San Francisco 49ers can clinch the top pick in next year's draft.
Sunday's game between teams at opposite ends of the NFL spectrum looms as a major mismatch. But so did the Patriots' game two weeks ago against another team that had only two wins.
They lost that road game to the Miami Dolphins, 29-28, reinforcing their already strong resolve to prepare as diligently to face strong teams as they do for weak ones -- even the 49ers, whose two wins have been in overtime against Arizona.
"No one gives them much of a chance, but I think we know it is going to be a tough challenge," said longtime 49ers fan Tom Brady, who now roots for the Patriots because, well, he's their quarterback. "You saw what happened a couple of weeks ago when we didn't play well."
The Patriots (13-2) responded to that loss with one of their best games of the season, a 23-7 win at the New York Jets that clinched a playoff bye.
"We're going to have to get better going into the playoffs," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said.
The 49ers, who could tie their franchise-worst record of 2-14, are weak on offense and defense and coming off a 41-7 loss at home to Buffalo. They've averaged only 16.8 points per game while allowing an NFL worst 28.7.
"It's hard" to motivate players for the last game, San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson said. "I consider it an opportunity to go play the world champions and it's the last game of the season and the bottom line is that most athletes will go in and compete as hard as they can."
A loss Sunday guarantees the 49ers the top draft pick.
The Patriots have less at stake after clinching the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. But they don't want to slip with a possible playoff matchup against Indianapolis two weeks away. The Colts would visit New England if they win their first playoff game against an opponent to be determined Sunday.
"I want our team to be playing its best football as we head into January," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It's a time we need to be playing well, not going in the other direction."
Brady, a passionate 49ers fan until the Patriots made him the seventh quarterback drafted in 2000, is expected to start and be replaced by Rohan Davey. Belichick hasn't said how long Brady or other regulars will play. Defensive end Richard Seymour is doubtful after hurting his knee last Sunday, and cornerback Ty Law is questionable after missing the last eight games recovering from a broken foot.
Brady and Belichick will face San Francisco for the first time since both joined the Patriots in 2000.
"There are a lot of elements of the 49ers that are similar in some respects to the Dolphins," Belichick said. "They've had problems with some turnovers. Their record doesn't probably reflect the overall talent level of the team."
QB Dorsey starts
Tim Rattay, the eighth quarterback taken in 2000, has played in nine games for San Francisco and underwent surgery on his right forearm Tuesday. Ken Dorsey will make his seventh start Sunday.
For Dorsey, and other 49ers, this is a chance to gain experience.
"We've been preparing all week just like every other week," Dorsey said. "It's not about being a spoiler or anything. We just want to play hard and learn things that we can use in the future."
Erickson has three years and $7.5 million left on his contract, but may not be retained. He interviewed for the head coaching job at Mississippi this month before deciding it wasn't for him. But he's not eager to bail out on the 49ers.
"I'm planning on staying here as long as I possibly can," he said, "hopefully for a long period of time."
Hopefully with an improved team.
San Francisco has committed 38 turnovers, tied for second most in the league, compared with 24 for New England. The 49ers also have allowed 51 sacks, more than double the Patriots' 25.
New England's Corey Dillon has rushed for more than twice as many yards (1,519) as San Francisco's leading rusher, Kevan Barlow (719).
"We're getting where we need to be," said Dillon, who has broken Curtis Martin's team rushing record. "You need to get into these playoffs on a roll."
The 49ers want to head into the offseason the same way.
"The worst thing we could do is go out and lay down," defensive tackle Bryant Young said. "We want to go out and leave a good taste in our mouth going into next season. This game is just as important as every other game."