FOXBORO -- If the Patriots and 49ers are the two teams left standing at the end, then we’ll remember Sunday night’s game as a terrific appetizer to what should be an amazing main course of football down the road in New Orleans.
In one of the most wildly entertaining games of the NFL season, the Patriots nearly pulled off a ridiculous upset -- coming from a 28-point deficit in the second half to tie the game midway through the fourth quarter -- but the 49ers showed they were made of pretty strong stuff, holding together down the stretch and managing to knock off New England, 41-34, Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. (Click here for the complete recap.)
“They just did a better job than we did,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We just have to perform better than that. We didn’t, so that’s the result.
“We just didn’t do a good job tonight -- it’s as simple as that.”
The first half belonged to quarterback Colin Kaepernick (14-for-25 for 216 yards and four touchdown passes) and the Niners, who silenced a rowdy Gillette Stadium crowd by taking a 17-3 lead at halftime and quickly pushing out to a 31-3 edge in the third quarter. But veteran Tom Brady counterpunched and steered the Patriots to four touchdowns in less than a quarter -- two runs from Danny Woodhead, one from Brady and a pass to Aaron Hernandez -- to turn a blowout into a nailbiter.
In the end, the 49ers got a late touchdown and a big fourth-down stop with just over two minutes left, which proved to be the difference.
“This is a great win,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
In the New England locker room, there was a feeling the Patriots let a huge opportunity get away.
“You can’t play like we played tonight,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said after the first loss for the Patriots in two months. “It’s just not good football. You can’t turn the ball over, and you just can’t have the series of events that we had early in the game [where] you dig yourselves in a hole, 31-3 against a good team. It’s hard to come back and win from that.”
The Patriots took the loss and San Francisco came away with the win, but in the bigger picture, on Sunday night, both teams showed they have legit Super Bowl credentials: the Niners shut down the league’s best offense over the first three quarters and ultimately won a shootout on the road against Tom Brady. Meanwhile, the Patriots showed extraordinary mental toughness when it came to digging out of a 28-point hole in the second half, very nearly posting one of the great comebacks in league history. And they hung 34 points on the league’s best scoring defense.
At the same time, it drove home the point that in the 49ers, New England has an opponent that provides legitimate matchup problems all over the field. San Francisco is a physical, aggressive team that beats you up on both sides of the ball. On defense, the Niners do a good job getting pressure on the quarterback with a relatively minimal number of rushers, and offensively, Kaepernick is a dynamic presence who is difficult to stop. Their coaching staff isn’t afraid to take chances -- if you want to beat the Patriots, you can’t be intimidated, and even have to roll the dice from time to time.
If the Patriots want to rewrite the ending in February, they can hang their hats on three things:
1. It was evident that any ills that may have plagued New England at the start of the game against San Francisco were diagnosed and cured by the midway point of the fourth quarter, as the Patriots were rolling on both sides of the ball. New England scored 24 points in the fourth quarter, and it if it wasn’t for a failed fourth-down conversion attempt could very well have pulled off the win. So much of the Niners’ recipe for success is contingent on them getting a lead on both sides of the ball. If these two teams meet again in February, it’s unlikely that the Patriots will have such a ragged start.
2. The Patriots put up 34 against the team that was the stingiest in the league when it came to giving up points -- the Niners entered the game allowing just 14.2 points per game, best in the NFL. Brady threw for 443 yards and the team ran for almost 100 yards. All of that with a first half that saw them unable to string much of anything together offensively.
3. There was no Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots were able to do a lot of damage against the Niners on offense without one of their most important offensive options, who remains on the shelf after November surgery on his arm. If these two teams meet again in February and the big tight end is back in the lineup, he will present a myriad of offensive options the Niners didn’t have to worry about this time around.
In truth, it was a game that had many similarities to the Patriots-Giants regular-season battles in 2007 and 2011: a remarkably physical affair between two elite teams that grew a little chippy at times, but still provided compelling national theater. While it remains to be seen if the two teams will meet again in the playoffs like New England and New York did on those two occasions, if they do, they’ll be hard-pressed to replicate the drama they produced under the lights Sunday in Foxboro.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots Sunday night.
STEVAN RIDLEY KNOWS WHAT EVERYONE IS THINKING
The second-year running back, who has done so much so well over the course of the season, put the ball on the ground twice against the Niners. While the one on New England’s first drive of the game was overturned on review, the second one led directly to a second-half touchdown for San Francisco, which punched it in on the following play. (Ridley was on the field for just one snap the rest of the way, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN.) Ridley now has four fumbles on the season, and Sunday night marked the second time this season he has posted fumbles in back-to-back weeks. Fair or not -- everyone had trouble hanging on to the ball Sunday night because of the bad weather -- the running back is in danger of developing a reputation as someone who had trouble when it comes to ball security. In truth, it was a forgettable night for Ridley, who had nine carries for 23 yards, his worst statistical outing of the season. (For the record, he has 243 carries for 1,082 yards on the season for 4.5 yards per carry -- all three totals are in the top 10 in the league.)
Quote: “No one is harder on myself than me. Nobody is more upset when I fumble than Stevan is. For me, I just have to keep working. There is lot of football left to be played. You can’t look back, and that’s something we haven’t down all year, wins or losses. We have moved forward. So for me, that’s just what I have to continue to do. But I have to do better. I have to do better in game situations holding onto the football. We can’t have mistakes like that.” -- Ridley on his performance
TOM BRADY IS GOING TO HAVE TO ICE HIS ARM
The quarterback attempted a career-high 65 passes on Sunday against San Francisco -- the second-most in franchise history to Drew Bledsoe’s 70 passes he attempted in a memorable November 1994 win over the Vikings at Foxboro Stadium. As bad as he and the rest of the offense was in the first half (when he had just 76 passing yards), he was immense in the second half, and finished 36-for-65 for 443 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. In the third and fourth quarter, the quarterback threw for 367 yards and a touchdown while leading his team back from a 28-point deficit. The three scoring drives he led at the start of the fourth were his most impressive -- scoring drives of nine, six and seven plays, all of which were brutally efficient and none of which took more than 3:41.
Quote: “We were turning the ball over. It’s hard if you’re not making big plays and you can’t put together enough good plays to put together a scoring drive. And certainly to turn the ball over and give them a chance to score, which is pretty much what we did the entire first half. We just didn’t even give ourselves a chance. I mean, they’re a very good team and a very good defense and they play hard. We just spotted them 28 points. We fought hard, but you can’t play poorly against a good team and expect to win.” -- Brady on the offensive struggles over the first two quarters
CONSIDERING THE MARKED PROGRESS THE DEFENSE HAD BEEN MAKING OVER THE LAST MONTH, SUNDAY HAD TO BE DEFLATING
All of the high-value defensive numbers had improved over the previous month for the Patriots defense, including third-down defense, red-zone defense, takeaways and total points allowed (which had decreased steadily from 31, 24, 19 and 16, and culminated with a measly 14 points allowed last week against the mighty Texans). But against the Niners, all that went out the window, as New England struggled to do much of anything to stop the San Francisco offense over the first three quarters. In that stretch, the Niners dominated on the ground (159 rushing yards through three, including 66 yards from Gore) and in the air (166 from Kaepernick). The Patriots were able to turn things around in the final quarter -- when they forced three 3-and-outs -- but in the end, it was too little, too late. The Patriots did get two takeaways -- a Devin McCourty interception and an Aqib Talib fumble recovery -- but couldn’t capitalize on a lot of chances, as the Niners fumbled the ball an astonishing six times but only lost one of them.
Quote: “[I] always thought that we were in the game; we just needed to get on a roll. When we’re on a roll, we play very well. But at the end of the day, when you blow off 30 minutes of a football game, it’s going to be tough to come [back] on any type of team, especially a very good team like the Niners were. So we were lucky that we got it that close.” -- Vince Wilfork on the performance Sunday night
THERE WAS GOOD AND BAD IN THE NEW ENGLAND SECONDARY
It was a good night for Devin McCourty and (mostly) Aqib Talib, as the two defensive backs came away with the only takeaways of the evening for the Patriots. McCourty made a very nice play on a pass meant for Randy Moss in the end zone, coming away with a pick that looked an awful lot like his play on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub the week before. McCourty appeared to bait the quarterback into taking a shot at the end zone, only to come away with the ball when he cut it off. Talib had a nice fumble recovery, coming away with the ball on the New England goal after a nasty Steve Gregory hit. But that was about it in terms of positives, as cornerback Alfonzo Dennard struggled in coverage and was injured before going down with a knee injury. He was replaced on the outside by Kyle Arrington, who was competitive but missed a tackle on Michael Crabtree at the worst possible time, allowing the receiver to make a nifty catch-and-run on a 38-yard touchdown pass, the go-ahead score for the Niners that allowed them to regain momentum in the fourth quarter. (To be fair to Arrington, it appeared the Patriots didn’t offer much help, as they sent extra rushers in an attempt to rattle Kaepernick on the play.
Quote: “He’s been poised throughout the games. Nothing seems to rattle him. He’s been able to just play his game. Even last week against Miami, (with the) game on the line, important drive, and he keeps it and runs down the sideline for a touchdown. We knew we weren’t going to really rattle him or get him out of the game. We knew that he was a tough player.” -- McCourty on Kaepernick
BRANDON LLOYD IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE OFFENSE
After an occasionally underwhelming season, Lloyd emerged with his best game as a Patriot Sunday night against the Niners. Lloyd had 10 catches on 16 targets for 190 yards in the defeat. (It marked a career-high in yardage, and was the second-best night of his career when it came to receptions. All three categories represented his best night as a member of the Patriots.) Lloyd and Welker really helped kick start the New England offense in the second half -- Lloyd had three catches (on five targets) for 40 yards at the half, but revved things up down the stretch. He was at his best on the drive that tied the game in the fourth, picking up 63 of the 92 yards on the drive, including a 53-yarder deep down the New England sidelines that saw him pick up big yards after the catch, a rarity for the receiver.
Quote: “He played a great game. He played a great game and made some great catches when we needed it. He’s had two great weeks in a row, and we’re going to need it down the stretch here. And certainly, the season isn’t over. We’ve got a lot of football left to play. To play as poorly as we did tonight and still have an opportunity to win ... we just have to do a better job.” -- Brady on Lloyd’s performance Sunday
IT WAS A BAD NIGHT FOR TWO SPECIAL TEAMS UNITS
It was a rough night for New England’s punt return and kick coverage units. In the first quarter, with the Niners facing a 4th and 10 at their own 46, San Francisco executed a perfect punt fake, with up man Dashon Goldson taking the snap and shooting around left end for a 31-yard gain. San Francisco wasn’t able to get any points off the fake -- a 39-yard field goal attempt from David Akers was wide left -- but it kept the ball out of the Patriots’ hands and kept the New England offense on the sidelines. But the real killer came in the fourth quarter, right after New England had tied the game at 31. With Gillette Stadium rocking, San Francisco kick returner LaMichael James delivered a 62-yard jolt that gave the Niners fantastic field position. One play later, San Francisco cashed in with a 38-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree to give the Niners a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. While most other special teams departments did enough to receive a passing grade, these two errors were very costly for New England.
Quote: “Ask Delanie [Walker] -- he can tell you better than me, because he was the one that was blocking. They kicked me the ball, and I followed Delanie. I trust Delanie -- he always gets his block, and he took me to the promised land. I did as much as I could to help the team win, and that’s pretty much it. One play doesn’t win a game though, but I think it put us in good position to get the score. It was a game changing play and it helped us win.” -- James on his fourth-quarter kick return that set up the game-winning touchdown
THE OFFENSIVE LINE FACED ITS MOST PHYSICAL FRONT OF THE YEAR
The Patriots offensive line, which had done such a good job over the first 13 games of the season -- allowing just 20 sacks through that stretch -- had some issues with the Niners. The physical San Francisco front sacked Brady three times, tying the second-most sacks on the quarterback this season. (The Jets got Brady four times in their October matchup.) Ray McDonald had a pair of sacks, while Ricky Jean-Francois had one. In addition, San Francisco finished with seven quarterback hits, and while Logan Mankins took special note of the fact that edge rusher Aldon Smith was held sackless, Smith did have a pair of quarterback hits on the evening. McDonald also had a pair of quarterback hits for the Niners, who were able to get good, consistent pressure on Brady for a good chunk of the first three quarters. The quarterback -- and, by association, the offense -- was mostly clean down the stretch, but the quarterback took his licks from a punishing San Francisco front seven.
Quote: “I think we just did a better job blocking them, blocking their pressures and stunts and stuff. I think guys just made more plays in the second half. I think the first half, we had penalties, interceptions, fumbles, drops. The second half, I don’t recall too many of those things. We just did a better job executing.” -- Mankins on the difference between the Patriots’ performance early and late
THE PATRIOTS DON’T DO MORAL VICTORIES
There’s the fact that the Patriots showed the mental toughness needed to climb out of a 28-point hole in the second half, coming all the way back to tie the game at 31 midway through the fourth quarter. But there’s also the fact that the team got into that spot in the first place, something that will undoubtedly nag at them over the coming week, especially considering the fact that the defeat will now likely cost them when it comes to landing one of the top two seeds in the AFC. The real legacy of this loss will likely be found in missed opportunities -- whether it was the poor start, an untimely turnover, a poor penalty or an inability to capitalize on a takeaway, the Patriots certainly had their chances in this one, but they just couldn’t make it happen.
Quote: “Well, we’re disappointed we lost, but I think there were some good signs that we fought back to tie up the game. We came back, but we just came up a little short, still. When you start that bad and dig that big a hole against a good team, it’s going to be hard to win. ... I think some teams might mail it in. Last week, [Houston] put all their subs in. We’re not going to do that -- we’re going to keep fighting. No game is ever over.” -- Mankins on the defeat
UNLESS SOMETHING CRAZY HAPPENS, THE PATRIOTS ARE LOOKING AT THE NO. 3 SEED
The Patriots now appear to be pretty much locked in to the third seed in the AFC playoff picture, as the Broncos (11-3) moved ahead of New England (10-4) with their win over the Ravens in Baltimore (the ninth straight win for Denver) and the Texans gained a solid foothold on the top spot in the AFC with a victory over the Colts at home. Houston (12-2) can clinch the top spot with a Week 16 win at home against the Vikings. Meanwhile, the Broncos would need to lose to either the Browns or Chiefs in the last two games (highly unlikely) to fall out of the No. 2 spot. That means they’ll play a wild card game on the first weekend of the postseason -- likely against Indy, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or the Jets -- and if they win, would then go on the road for the divisional playoffs (as it stands right now, likely to Denver to meet the Broncos) and be away from Foxboro for the rest of the postseason.
Quote: “We haven’t thought about that yet. We’ve just been trying to string wins together and so forth. What’s in our control is winning football games. Certainly that was the goal tonight. It wasn’t the outcome, but that’s what we were trying to do. We put a lot into it. We knew the type of team we were playing. We hung in there at times and there were times we didn’t. It’s unfortunate, but it’s OK. We’ve got two games left and certainly this game is very important to the outcome of our season, next week in Jacksonville.” -- Brady on how the loss changes the postseason picture for New England