Sunday night's matchup between the 49ers and Patriots was a possible Super Bowl preview, a game between two of the top five teams in the league. The Patriots, having won seven in a row going into the contest, were favored by seven points by the gambling crowd. The 49ers had not been playing their best football, having barely beat the Dolphins in Week 14 and having lost to the Rams the week before. The 49ers left the Northeast with a 41-34 victory in a back-and-forth battle that was an instant classic.
The game was critical for both teams, with the loser dropping into the third seed in their conference. The third-seeded teams on each side, the Packers and Broncos, respectively, have favorable schedules over the last two weeks and any loss could mean the disappearance of the coveted first-round bye that goes with a top-two seed. The 49ers, needless to say, are the only one still sitting in second. The Patriots were handed their first home loss in December in over 10 years and with the victory, the 49ers clinched a playoff birth. They now need one win in their next two games to clinch the NFC West for the second straight season.
The game had two massive momentum pushes, with the 49ers jumping out to a 31-3 lead early in the third quarter before the Patriots responded with four straight touchdowns to equal the score at 31 in the fourth. Key plays were made by many players, as well as some key mistakes. The 49ers won making the final decisive play and the sequence will undoubtedly be a highlight on the season, no matter how it ends.
Tom Brady had just led the Patriots on four consecutive scoring drives, while the 49ers' offense was mired in neutral. The drives consisted of 35 plays for 317 yards and took a combined 12:20 of game time. And that was it. A 31-3 lead wiped out in the blink of an eye by one of the few players in the league that could do it. The 49ers' defense appeared to be on it's last legs, while the offense was flat.
What happened next was the stuff that makes seasons. Rarely used rookie LaMIchael James took the ensuing kickoff 62 yards up the left sideline to put the 49ers at the Patriots 38-yard line. On the next play, Colin Kaepernick found Michael Crabtree in a one-on-one with cornerback Kyle Arrington. He hit him a few yards down field, and Crabtree turned inside, slipping out of Arrington's grasp before sprinting the 38 yards to the end zone for the decisive score.
Kaepernick deserves some attention for the way he played in the biggest game of his young career. He finished 14 of 25 for 216 yards with 4 touchdowns and an interception. It was the first 4-touchdown game by a 49ers QB since Jeff Garcia did it in 2003.
Some of the reads made by Kaepernick were as good as any quarterback in the business. On his second touchdown of the day, a 34-yard strike to Delanie Walker, Kaepernick looked the defender away on a route where both Walker and Vernon Davis both streaked to the end zone, with Davis taking the inside. As soon as the defender stepped up to prevent Davis from getting away from him, Kaepernick hit Walker over the top along the right side of the end zone.
On the final score, Kaepernick correctly identified cover zero, that is to say, no help from the safeties, who were up to protect against the run. The pass rush came and Kaepernick found Crabtree right away, allowing the playmaker the opportunity to win the game.
Crabtree ended up with 7 catches for 107 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He made key plays all game long, converting third downs and, of course, the game-winner. Frank Gore set the tone early by gaining hard yards against a tough Patriots run defense led by Vince Wilfork. LaMichael James filled in well for Kendall Hunter, gaining 31 yards on 8 carries and, with his work in the return game included, is showing return on the second-round pick the 49ers invested in him after being inactive for the majority of the year.
The offensive line played well, once again. They allowed only one sack on the game and were effective in the run game in the first half. They had a lull in the the second half, as the 49ers managed only one first down on the three drives that were sandwiched between the Patriots four touchdowns. Overall it was a success for the unit, with the 49ers rushing for 180 yards on the day (though 31 yards came on a fake punt to Dashon Goldson) against a Patriots defense that came into the game ranked 8th in yards allowed on the ground.
There were plenty of mistakes made, including four fumbled snaps, giving Kaepernick a league-leading nine on the year in limited playing time. All four were recovered by the 49ers and one of them was picked up by Gore who snuck through the line for a 9-yard fumble return touchdown. Kaepernick also threw an ill-advised interception into the end zone on a route in which Randy Moss was double-covered. Either one of the defenders appeared to have the opportunity to make a play on the ball. Devin McCourty came away with the pick and was one of the few bright spots for the New England defense.
For the 49ers' defense there were plenty of big plays as well. Early on, the Niners dominated Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense with a series of turnovers and hard hits. Brady threw two interceptions, one a great play by Carlos Rogers on a slight overthrow and the other, by Aldon Smith, a result of Aaron Hernandez catching a case of alligator arms following a brutal Dashon Goldson hit (that was flagged). Most of the opportunities provided by the turnovers were squandered with missed field goals, turnovers of their own and even a failed fourth down (which the 49ers elected to go for following the earlier David Akers miss).
Both Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman played well, finishing one and two in tackles on the game. Ray McDonald had two sacks and seldom used Ricky Jean-Francois had another sack filling in for Justin Smith, who left the game with an arm injury. Aldon Smith was held sackless for the first time since Week 6. Nate Solder held him at bay for much of the game, though Aldon did record 6 pressures on Brady. The unit as a whole held Wes Welker to 5 catches for 56 yards.
In my preview piece on the game, I cited the turnover battle as the key to the 49ers escaping victorious. The 49ers won 4-2, marking the first time this season that New England, who came into the game with a +24 in turnover differential, lost that crucial aspect of a contest. The four turnovers were the highest for the Patriots since Week 9 of 2011 and they had previously had multiple turnovers only twice on the season.
The 49ers also outplayed the Patriots on third down. New England came into the game converting 52.5% of their third downs, yet finished 2/15 against the Niners. Kaepernick and the offense finished a respectable 5 of 14.
As mentioned, David Akers missed another makable field goal. With the weather conditions being what they were, it would be understandable if it wasn't a part of a larger, worrisome pattern over the second half of the season. Many are calling for him to be replaced, but with few viable options waiting in the wings, it would appear he'll keep his job for now. If asked, most 49ers' fans would list 'kicker' as their biggest concern going into the playoffs.
Also of note is Justin Smith's injury. He left the game with an arm injury, assumed to be his elbow, returned for one play with it wrapped up, before hitting the bench for good. There's no word on the outcome, though he had an MRI Monday. Coach Harbaugh, staying true to form, refused to divulge the results of the test, but sounded optimistic that Smith would play. Smith has a consecutive games started streak of 188, the longest in the league for a defensive lineman.
It wasn't pretty, in fact, at times it was rather ugly, but the 49ers went on the road against the hottest team in the league and beat them. They've now beat the Patriots and the Packers on the road, both among the favorites to be crowned champs. It's no indicator of how things will play out the rest of the season and on into the playoffs, but knowing that you can beat any team, anywhere gives a team the confidence needed to make a run for a title.