Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots comeback falls short in loss to 49ers
New England turned the ball over as many times as it had in the previous seven games combined. It got hoodwinked on special teams. It struggled to move the ball even when it did maintain possession. And it struggled in pass coverage.
And in the end - though Tom Brady finally figured out the league's top-ranked defense, and erased a four-score deficit during a thrilling second half - the Patriots were made to pay the price for their sloppiness.
The 49ers' own foibles kept the Patriots alive early, but ultimately the burden of coming back from so far down proved too much to bear, and New England suffered a 41-34 defeat that does significant damage to its hopes of securing the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and the bye accompanying that rank.
Trailing 31-3, the Patriots got a 6-yard Danny Woodhead touchdown run, a 1-yard Brady scoring sneak, a 5-yard strike to Aaron Hernandez and finally a 1-yard plunge by Woodhead within the span of a single period to tie the game with 6:45 to go.
But on a night that was defined by their mistakes, the Pats spent all that time working back to even - and allowed the 49ers to take the lead back just 12 seconds later. LaMichael James took the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to put San Francisco in New England territory immediately, then on the first play from scrimmage Colin Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree, who lost his defender with a hook inside and went 38 yards to the house.
That stopped the Pats surge, giving the Niners a 38-31 lead. And after New England couldn't gain a first down on the ensuing series, David Akers iced things with a 28-yard chip shot that made Stephen Gostkowski's subsequent 41-yarder irrelevant, and San Francisco moved to 10-3-1.
The Patriots, meanwhile slid to 10-4, and when that fact was combined with Denver's 34-17 defeat of Baltimore earlier in the day, cost New England control of its grip on the No. 2 seed in the conference. The Broncos are now 11-3, while the Patriots are 10-4 - and Denver finishes the regular season by welcoming Cleveland (5-9) and Kansas City (2-12) to the altitude.
So it would take an upset by either of those teams, as well as New England wins over Jacksonville and Miami, in order for the Patriots to catch them. The latter is likely. The former is not.
The struggles for the Patriots were uncharacteristic on many levels, not only because they lost at home in December, but they lost in the second half of the regular season for the first time since 2009, they committed as many turnovers as they had in their previous seven games combined (four), they failed to score a touchdown while gaining only 113 yards in the first half, and they were generally outplayed in the game's most meaningful moments.
They were playing from behind basically from the start, with the offense unable to get a rhythm in large part because it couldn't block the terrorizing pass rush of Aldon Smith - and because, worse, it turned the ball over twice. The first came when Brady was intercepted by Carlos Rogers; the second when Shane Vereen had the ball jarred free while running with a screen pass.
New England wasn't much better on defense or special teams, either. San Francisco went 63 yards on its first series, completing the drive with a 24-yard touchdown pass to old friend Randy Moss to take a quick lead. Then on 4th and 10 from their own 41, the 49ers executed a direct-snap fake punt on which Dashon Goldson scooted around the left edge for 38 yards, and on four of its first five possessions San Francisco advanced the ball inside New England's 25-yard line.
Yet through all of that, the Patriots trailed only 7-0 - because the Niners were just as inept when it came to seizing opportunities. After the interception, and its return to the 5, Delanie Walker fumbled and Patriot Aqib Talib recovered. After the fake punt, Akers missed a 30-yard field goal. And after the Vereen fumble, Kaepernick missed a wide open Vernon Davis for a sure touchdown before that possession ended with a failed fourth down conversion.
New England was plenty fortunate to be in that position - though they had to have known one of the best teams in the NFC wouldn't shoot itself in the foot all night. So after the Pats could only glean a field goal from a 16-play drive, they couldn't have been surprised when the 49ers began to assert themselves more consistently.
San Francisco answered Gostkowski's 32-yard boot with a 34-yard touchdown toss from Kaepernick to Walker. Next came a New England three-and-out. Then came a 15-play, 76-yard march that netted a 20-yard, buzzer-beating field goal and sent the Niners to the halftime break with a 17-3 lead.
The game shouldn't even have been that close by then. And the 49ers didn't need five minutes of the third quarter to make sure it wasn't for much longer.
A Devin McCourty interception in the end zone staved off San Francisco temporarily, but in a series of five offensive snaps San Francisco managed to double its advantage. It went: Stevan Ridley fumble; Frank Gore recovery of fumbled snap, 3-yard touchdown; 49ers penalty; Brady interception on screen pass off Aaron Hernandez' hands; 27-yard strike from Kaepernick to Crabtree.
Just like that, it was 31-3. For entertainment purposes, at that point the fun was just beginning. But for the Patriots, that proved to be too late.
NEW ENGLAND'S honorary captains for the contest were Pro Football Hall of Famers Andre Tippett, Curtis Martin and Mike Haynes - who said he'd love to play in today's pass-happy NFL, in large part because of the challenges and opportunities it would create for a cornerback like himself.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.