What we learned Sunday night in a wild, back-and-forth 49ers’ 41-34 win over the Patriots in Foxboro:
Never over when you have No. 12
It was 31-3 and ‘Niners players were jumping all over the place as rain poured on downtrodden fans at a shell-shocked Gillette Stadium. One problem. There was more than 25 minutes for Tom Brady and company to do something. And do something they did, scoring 28 points in less than 15 minutes to tie it. San Fran answered with an 18-second drive to stun the crowd once again, but the fact that the Patriots flirted with tying the best comeback in NFL regular-season history simply serves as another reminder of what can happen with Brady under center.
Costly Patriots turnovers, including Aldon Smith’s pick of Tom Brady on an Aaron Hernandez bobble in the third quarter, gave San Fran reason to believe that New England would take the rest of the night off. But the Pats unfathomably battled back, with Danny Woodhead finding the end zone from six yards out with 6:04 left in the third and Tom Brady plunging in for six on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 31-17. New England then came up with a huge conversion on fourth-and-2, when Brady hit Wes Welker on a play-action lob. Hernandez would score a minute later to remarkably bring the Pats to within a touchdown. With just under nine minutes to go, Brady hit Brandon Lloyd along the sidelines for a big 53-yard pickup before yet another score to tie it at 31. San Fran finally ended the New England run with a Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree 38-yard touchdown pass.
The Niners ain’t the Texans
Whereas Houston walked onto the big stage and fell flat on its face, San Francisco was ready. The Niners thrived in the New England muck that so often has catered to the Patriots. San Francisco is physical and has the potential to win ugly, especially with a dominant defense. Consider that the best offense in football didn’t enter enemy territory until the seventh play of the second quarter, and didn’t score until a grinding 16-play drive resulted in just three points. New England had just 113 total yards at the half. Whereas the Texans game felt almost awkward, this one felt sort of Super Bowl-ish, all because Jim Harbaugh’s team plays like it’s meant to be on the big stage.
Speaking of the weather
It had to be a factor in one of the oddest first quarters you’ll ever see. The first 15 minutes saw five fumbles, two challenges, a Tom Brady interception, a Randy Moss touchdown, a missed field goal, a fake punt and a Presidential address. The second quarter started with (what else) a fumble, and there was mass confusion later on a New England punt that led to a lengthy delay and a whole lot of Ed Hochuli hatred.
Pass on the defense
It seemed as if the issues with the Pats’ pass defense were a thing of the past. Not so if Sunday’s game is any indication. The Niners didn’t go bananas through the air, but the distance between San Francisco receivers and New England defenders was, at times, remarkable. Colin Kaepernick looked very comfortable. Moss got behind the defense on his TD, rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was beaten a few times, Steve Gregory was toasted once by Vernon Davis, Aqib Talib committed a 35-yard pass interference on a San Fran scoring drives and Kaepernick converted a 3rd-and-15 on a screen play early in the third. Chad Henne is so going to torch these guys next week in Jacksonville (Kidding. I think.).
There goes the first-round bye. Perhaps.
New England finishes with games against Jacksonville and Miami. There is a great chance it will finish 12-4. However, Denver hosts Cleveland and Kansas City to end the regular season, giving it a great chance to finish 13-3. Houston already has 12 wins. Therefore, the Pats are still likely to host a playoff game, but Sunday night’s effort knocked them out of the driver’s seat for one of the two byes.