On Sunday night, in what was arguably the game of the year in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers dismantled Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots in Foxboro. Then they blew it. Then they came back and found a way to win the game 41-34.
The 49ers owned the 1st half and the beginning of the 2nd, jumping out to a 31-3 lead and showing how dominant they can be when they are on their game. The defense, which came into the game leading the league in points against, held the league’s top ranked offense to just 3 points in the 1st half by getting both stops and turnovers. Tom Brady entered the game with 4 interceptions in 13 games but the Niners were able to pick him off twice. Donte Whitner unleashed one of his trademark hits on Stevan Ridley and knocked the ball loose.
On the other side of the ball, Colin Kaepernick played his best game as a pro despite bobbling 4 snaps from center. He hit Randy Moss with a beautiful pass on the opening drive to stake the 49ers to a 7-0 lead before finding Delanie Walker in the endzone and hitting Michael Crabtree for 2 more touchdowns. The 2nd year QB handled the elements and the pressure of playing against Brady and the Pats with aplomb never looking at all overmatched by the enormity of the moment. He also became the 1st 49ers quarterback to throw 4 TD’s in the same game in nearly a decade.
Once the 49ers got the lead up to 28 pts at 31-3 the game took a dramatic turn. Tom Brady lead the Pats down the field for a score to make it 31-10. Then the Pats’ defense got a stop and once again Brady lead the Patriots to a score, cutting the deficit to 31-17. With Justin Smith sidelined by an injury Brady lead the Patriots to 2 more touchdowns for a total of 28 unanswered points, and the blowout was suddenly a tie game at 31.
With Niners fans suddenly nervous, Pats fans smiling, and Gillette Stadium rocking, rookie RB LaMichael James stepped up with what turned out to be the biggest play of the game. After the Patriots tied the game at 31, James returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards, giving an offense that had become stagnant and ineffective great field position for the most important drive of the game. The 49ers absolutely had to have points on that drive to push-back against the momentum that was squarely on the side of the Patriots and inject some life back into a defense that was missing Justin Smith and looking worn down by the Pats’ no-huddle offense. On the play following James’ huge return Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a short pass and Crabtree beat his man and took it all the way in for the score. After blowing a 28 pt lead on the road the 49ers were back on top 38-31.
Both teams kicked field goals, the 49ers were able to get a couple of stops, the Patriots couldn’t recover the onside kick after their field goal, and the Niners (and their fans) could finally exhale and celebrate a hard fought and impressive 41-34 win. For the Patriots the loss was their first at home in December in a decade.
- With the Patriots going almost exclusively to the no-huddle offense in the 2nd half Justin Smith’s absence wasn’t the only factor in the defense’s near total collapse but it certainly didn’t help. Smith isn’t the DPOY candidate that he was in 2011 but he still plays at a very high level and is a key figure in everything the 49ers do defensively due to his ability to draw a double team against both the run and the pass. Per Matt Barrows, Smith had an MRI on Monday and while Harbaugh said the injury isn’t believed to be anything long term the team did not reveal any details. A healthy Justin Smith is almost a prerequisite for a Super Bowl run so this situation is certainly one to keep an eye on going forward.
- The no-huddle looks that the Patriots went to in the 2nd half really seemed to cause problems for the 49ers. There aren’t a lot of teams that can run it effectively, and there isn’t anyone that can run it as well as Brady, but don’t be surprised if a team tries to speed up the game against the 49ers defense in the playoffs. Because the 49ers don’t blitz very often (and generally don’t have to) the no-huddle puts a lot of pressure on Aldon Smith and the other pass rushers who seemed to be worn out late in the 3rd quarter and early in the 4th before recovering somewhat after Crabtree scored the go ahead touchdown.
- Kaepernick made one rookie mistake on the interception he threw while trying to hit Randy Moss for a 2nd touchdown, but to his credit he didn’t hesitate to throw a laser to Crabtree on a similar pattern just a few minutes later. What was more troubling than the interception was the fairly consistent problem Kaepernick had getting the snap cleanly from Jonathan Goodwin. A lot was made of the fact that Kaepernick played almost exclusively ouf of the pistol or shotgun during college and that he may struggle moving under center in the NFL. To their credit, the 49ers coaching staff has implemented a lot of pistol formations into the offense and on Sunday night he looked much more comfortable there than under center. It’s something to watch but I’m not overly concerned because we haven’t seen this issue through the first 4 games Kaepernick started this season. This could be a case where Goodwin’s need to get off the ball and get on Vince Wilfork, coupled with the elements, rather than Kaepernick’s inexperience, were the primary factors behind the snap snafus.
- Michael Crabtree continues to emerge as not just a reliable player on 3rd down but as someone who is dangerous from any down and distance anywhere on the field. As Crabtree continues to ascend with Kaepernick at QB, tight end Vernon Davis continues to be invisible in the passing game. Kaepernick brings a lot of elements to the offense that Alex Smith either can’t or won’t, with the 1st TD to Crabtree being a prime example of a throw Smith would never attempt, but for the 49ers offense to reach their full potential Kaepernick and the coaches have to find a way to get the ball to Vernon Davis a little more often.
- Slot receivers have given the 49ers defense fits in the past and no one is better than Wes Welker from that position. Danny Amendola and Victor Cruz in particular have given Carlos Rogers problems but Rogers more than held his own against Welker. At this stage of his career Welker isn’t the big play threat that Cruz is and that may have helped Rogers. Still, taking away Welker was clearly a big part of the gameplan and the fact that Rogers was able to do that has to be considered an encouraging development.
- It’s hard to say that a 17-3 halftime lead against the Patriots in Foxboro should be considered disappointing but the 49ers should absolutely be disappointed with that result. David Akers missed another field goal and the 49ers missed out on a couple of great chances to get 7, notably on a 1st and goal after Rogers’ interception and a Delanie Walker fumble inside the red zone. The lead probably should have been 28 or more at halftime and that inability to cash in on every opportunity nearly cost the 49ers the game. Akers is showing no sign of breaking out of his season long slump and that makes it even more critical for the 49ers to get every touchdown they can because they simply can’t rely on their ability to bank on at least 3 pts from every trip to the red zone that doesn’t end with a turnover.
- The 49ers really miss Kendall Hunter’s ability to spell Frank Gore. Gore was his usual effective self Sunday night but he’s getting more carries than you’d like to see and appeared to be either tired, banged up, or both by the end of the 4th quarter when the 49ers were trying to run out the clock. LaMichael James brings some burst and big play ability to the backfield but he’s not the consistent every down type of running back that Hunter is and therefore doesn’t work as well when it comes to keeping Gore in the 17 carry range. Give James a ton of credit for his kickoff return though, because despite the fact that he wasn’t having a ton of success out of the backfield he still found a way to make a big play and have a major impact on the game. That’s the type of performance that will endear the rookie to his teammates and earn him more playing time from the coaches.
- That Tom Brady guy is pretty good. He might have a future in this league one day. The 49ers gave up 443 yards passing and 34 points, and not only did they walk out with the victory but they can honestly feel like the defense played well overall. How often does that happen?
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