Last night saw the New England Patriots’ seven-game winning streak come to a stunning end at the hands (and feet) of the San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1), who clinched an NFC playoff berth with their 41-34 win. For the AFC East champion Pats (now 10-4), this loss was not only shocking because it was their first one at home in December in 21 games, but it means their shot at earning one of the two AFC bye weeks in the playoffs next month is slim, with Houston (12-2) and Denver (11-3) having better records and only two games to go in the regular season.
After trailing 31-3 in the third quarter, the Pats had a near-miraculous comeback win in the works, having tied the game at 31-31 at the 6:43 mark of the fourth quarter via feisty RB Danny Woodhead’s second TD run of the game. Then special teams coverage and the secondary blew any chance of Tom Brady completing the march back toward victory by letting a 49ers rookie, LeMichael James run a 62-yard kickoff return into Patriots territory, followed by a 38-yard TD pass from San Fran QB Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree just one play later (making the score 38-31).
The usually reliable Pats offensive line then let Brady down on the next drive—in allowing an ill-timed sack—and after not converting a 4th-and-1 play with just under two-and-a-half minutes left, a chip shot 49ers field goal a few 49ers plays later stretched their lead to 10. The Pats were able to get a field goal on their last possession but after they failed to recover an on-side kick with under a minute left, that was all she wrote for this game.
The big story of this loss for the Pats was doing two things they had been the best in the NFL at NOT doing going into the game: turning the ball over, and converting on third down. In this game, Brady had two interceptions—though the second one was TE Aaron Hernandez’s fault in letting sack leader Aldon Smith take the ball out of his hands—while running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen fumbled the ball. The Pats were 0-for-7 on third down in the first half and were only 2-for-8 in the second half.
Credit the 49ers defense, who were ranked the best in the NFL for a reason: they are the real deal, aggressive and very physical. And as good teams often do, the 49ers were able to make the Pats four turnovers hurt—ex. RB Frank Gore’s early third quarter 9-yard TD on a fumble recovery—and that helped lead them to the 31-3 lead they had.
As good as SF is, however, there’s no excuse for some of the poor play that occurred last night. Let’s just start with what turned out to be the game-winning TD to Crabtree that put SF up for good at 38-31. Cornerback Kyle Arrington was in position to make a play but somehow failed to tackle him or push him out to the sideline. After that, when the Pats were trying one last time to tie the game again, the Pats stupidly thought it was a good idea to try and run the ball into coverage.
Also, the 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 plays went not to WR Wes Welker (who now has 100 catches for an NFL record fifth time), not to Brandon Lloyd (who had his best game of the season with 10 catches and 190 yards), but to Woodhead? I don’t get it. Yes, Woodhead had a great game, but as a running back (taking over for Ridley, who fumbled the ball away for the second game in a row). Those third and fourth down plays had him lined up as a receiver, and his lack of ability to make himself an easy target to get open for Brady showed. I don’t know for sure if both were really designed for him or if no one else was open, but it was frustrating to watch. I’d rather a game-sealing fourth down incompletion go to Welker than Woodhead any day.
Some fans had a problem with Bill Belichick letting Brady go for it on 4-and-1, even with the two timeouts they had and the two-minute warning. I didn’t because punting the ball back to SF was risky considering the Pats’ gave up a 62-yard kickoff return just four game minutes earlier. Besides, (I rhetorically ask) how hard is it to get one yard on two consecutive plays?
As for Hernandez, he had butterfingers last night, juggling the ball away to Smith and dropping at least one other crucial pass in the fourth quarter during the big oomeback. Brady may have been off-target to him and others on some of those career high 65 pass attempts, but that will happen. If it wasn’t for the two fumbles by the running backs and the points SF got off them, there would have been a better balance between the passing and running game. As it was, Brady completed 36 of those passes for 443 yards and one passing TD—he also ran for a TD. It just wasn’t good enough to win.
His counterpart Kaepernick threw for less than half those yards but had 4 TDs. It’s no wonder why he has kept his job since taking over for previous (injured) starter Alex Smith. (And Brady would know all about permanently starting in place of an injured star quarterback – i.e. Drew Bledsoe.)
But the bigger worry for New England is the secondary, which took a step back last night after having done a very good job against Houston and other teams in recent weeks. The acquisition of veteran Aqib Talib some weeks ago has helped, but even he has been inconsistent, and a pass interference on him proved costly and helped set up a SF scoring play in the first half. He and Devin McCourty—who did have an INT in this game—are the leaders of a young secondary and have to play like it consistently against good passing teams.
Simply put, the Patriots got their asses kicked by one of the best teams in the NFC. With only Jacksonville and Miami left on the schedule, the Patriots aren’t going to get a big test from another possible playoff team the rest of the season, so this match-up served as a good one. They failed it, and in doing so got a wake-up call that although they are still Super Bowl contenders, they have a lot of work to do to prove they can play well in all three phases of the game long and consistently enough to actually get there and win it.
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