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Ah, Sunday Night Football, just another weekend where the New England Patriots are on the national stage. Last Monday, the Patriots embarrassed the Houston Texans, and many believed that momentum would carry into Sunday night against, arguably, the best team in the NFC. This game had all the signs of being one of the best heavyweight fights in the history of the game, with football’s No. 1 offense going up against the No. 1 defense, but the real story was actually the reverse. The San Francisco offense’s dismantling of the Patriots’ defense was the biggest story on the day, and even a miraculous 28-0 run led by one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game was not enough to overcome some horrendous early mistakes and a turnover-prone offense. On to the recap:
If there was one play early on that got me worried, it was the second play of the first offensive series for the Patriots; Stevan Ridley rushed to the right and the ball squirted out and was recovered by San Francisco. The play was eventually overturned (correctly), but the fact that, on his first run, Ridley lost control of the football was not a good sign. He then got stuffed on third down and the Patriots were forced to punt. Colin Kaepernick came out swinging, as he completed three consecutive passes of 11+ yards to push the 49ers deep into NE territory. On the next third down, he hit Randy Moss to the left for a 24 yard touchdown to open the scoring. The ease with which San Francisco marched downfield was not very encouraging for Patriots fans.
On the next drive, Tom Brady hit Brandon Lloyd on a nice route for 23 yards, but the team managed to get no real offensive push on the next set of downs and had to settle for a punt. The defense managed to force a three-and-out, after Kaepernick fumbled the snap on third down, but Brady gave the ball right back as he forced a ball deep over the middle to Wes Welker, where it was intercepted by Carlos Rodgers. Of note, Rodgers returned the ball inside the five-yard line where Brady actually made a touchdown-saving tackle. This turned out to be huge, as Steve Gregory forced a Delanie Walker fumble and got the ball back for New England.
After another three-and-out by the Patriots, the 49ers took over and stalled. They ran three plays for no gain, but coach Jim Harbaugh pulled out one of his trick plays, and ran a direct snap to Dashon Goldson, sweeping left upfield for a 31-yard gain. After gaining seven more yards, San Francisco lined up for a 39-yard field goal, and David Akers missed it to keep the score at 7-0.
New England was still within a touchdown at this point, but couldn’t capitalize as Shane Vereen fumbled deep in Patriots’ territory, leading to his unceremonious exit from the game. After gaining nine yards, San Francisco went for it on fourth and one, and Kaepernick fumbled another snap, leading to a turnover. To this point, the whole first quarter was a sloppy mess, and the game hadn’t yet lived up to its billing as one of the best matchups of the regular season.
On their first drive of the second quarter, the Pats moved to primarily having Danny Woodhead in the backfield, and he did not disappoint. He racked up 25 yards on the ground as the Patriots drove deep in to 49ers’ territory, but Tom Brady was sacked on third-and-goal and the team had to settle for three points on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. After inching closer, the Patriots defense came out flat; four plays later, including a bad pass interference by Aqib Talib (if he turns his head around it’s a clean play), San Francisco put up another seven points on a 34-yard pass to a wide-open Delanie Walker, who got a clean release up the right sideline and was left all alone.
The Patriots got the ball back with just under seven minutes to play in the half and couldn’t get anything going. They had to settle for a punt, which ended up causing way more controversy than it should have. The ball bounced in front of return man Ted Ginn Jr., who thought better of picking it up at the last minute, as it careened to his right. The ball appeared to glance off of Ginn’s shin, and was recovered by Marquise Cole. Upon further review, the ball did not touch Ginn, but merely took a funny bounce and possession was maintained by San Francisco. In only a way referee Ed Hochuli can, he delivered an extremely confusing description of events, leading to angry expletives from coaches on both sidelines. After play was finally resumed, the 49ers took control of the ball on their own 22-yard line. The Patriots failed to stop San Francisco on three third down attempts, as they marched down the field and kicked a field goal to end the first half of regulation.
San Francisco started with the ball in the second half, and the Patriots needed to make a play to get the ball back and let their offense get to work. After Kaepernick drove the team to the New England 33-yard line, he forced a pass to Randy Moss in the end zone, and Devin McCourty managed to pick it off and give his team the ball at the 20-yard line. Brady kicked off his first drive of the half with a strike to Brandon Lloyd for 29 yards and a pass to Aaron Hernandez for 1 yards to push the team into 49ers territory. All good feelings were immediately lost, as Stevan Ridley lost another football, which was recovered by Dashon Goldson and returned all the way to the New England 6-yard line; a penalty on the Patriots pushed the ball to the three. Kaepernick immediately proceeded to fumble yet another snap, but Frank Gore picked it up and ran into the endzone for the score to put his team up 24-3.
The Patriots, seriously needing a score to keep pace, again gave the ball right back, where on the second play, Aaron Hernandez had a bubble screen pass slip out of his grasp right into the waiting arms of Aldon Smith. On the very next play, Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree deep over the middle for a 27-yard score and the game was officially out of control. The Patriots were now down 31-3, and had been all but written off in this game. It is very easy to forget that Patriots team has Tom Brady, and he was not going to let go of this game without a fight.
Brady took the next drive deep into San Francisco territory and hit Brandon Lloyd for a 22-yard touchdown that was called back on an illegal shift. Murphy’s Law seemed to have been settling in perfectly in this game, and anything that could go wrong for the Patriots, was going wrong. Brady did not let that penalty hurt them, and Danny Woodhead added a couple of strong rushes to put the ball into the endzone for the first time in the game. After a 17-yard run by LaMichael James to start the next San Francisco drive, the Patriot defense tightened up and forced a punt.
The next drive featured what may have been one of the best catches of the game by the unheralded fullback/tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, as he hauled in a forty-one yard strike from Brady to set the team up on the three. The Patriots ran out the quarter trying to pound the ball into the endzone to no avail. At the start of the fourth, on fourth and a very short one, Brady leapt over the pile to cut the deficit to two scores, and it had officially returned to looking like a football game. The Patriots defense stepped up to force yet another three-and-out, and the Patriots got the ball back with all the momentum in their favor.
After three plays for limited gain, Brady audibled into a gutsy play-action stretch play where he turned and flipped it to Welker in the flat with a man in his face. Welker had to reach out to grab the football, but he managed to gain 15 yards on the play and push the ball into SF territory. A couple plays later, Brandon Lloyd got tripped up on the five yard line, drawing a pass interference call; Brady then hit Aaron Hernandez on a quick out route for a score. The Patriots defense really came alive after this touchdown, and on second down, Rob Ninkovich burst into the backfield for a sack, forcing the Niners back thirteen yards.
Pinned inside their own ten yard line after the punt, Tom Brady hit Brandon Lloyd on two passes for 63 yards, including one for 53 up the right sideline which was a beautiful throw and catch. Four plays later, Danny Woodhead was standing in the endzone after a one-yard touchdown run, Gostkowski nailed the extra point, and the game was officially tied with a little under seven minutes left in the game.
All of the good feelings from their miraculous comeback were immediately dashed, as the first half version of the Patriots’ special teams unit arrived and allowed a 62-yard return to LaMichael James. If that wasn’t enough, Kaepernick hit a six-yard comeback route to Crabtree, who then broke a very weak tackle attempt by Kyle Arrington and was off to the races, putting the Pats back down by a score about as quickly as they possibly could.
Brady came back out firing as he hit Welker for two catches for 25 yards, but his offensive line finally relented and gave up two very bad sacks and the Patriots were forced to punt the ball away. The Patriots defense forced another three-and-out, mostly on the back of Brandon Spikes, who laid out a couple of good hits, but were again unable to get anything going, missing on a poorly executed fourth down play that left San Francisco in field goal range. David Akers didn’t miss this kick as he put his team up by ten, essentially putting the game out of reach. Tom Brady drove the Patriots down field in the two-minute offense to get a quick field goal and put the Pats within a score, but the ensuing onside kick attempt was kicked right to Delanie Walker and the game was over.
The Patriots certainly managed to turn this game into the battle it was originally made out to be, but it took too long for them to show up to the game. They have two easier games coming up on the schedule, as they travel to Jacksonville next weekend to take on the Jags and return to Foxboro in Week 17 to face off against the Dolphins. Many things will have to fall their way, but the Patriots need to win out to even have a chance of locking up the number 2 seed and a bye in the playoffs.
Statistics courtesy of NFL.com