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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Patriots Almost Rally For A Once-In-A-Lifetime Win, Fall Short Against 49ers 41-34

It's hard to know where to start when recapping what had to be the most exciting game of the 2012 NFL regular season. San Francisco built up a 31-3 lead in the third quarter, only to see New England rattle off 28 straight points and tie it at 31 in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers (10-3-1, 5-2 away) clinched a playoff berth with a completely absurd 41-38 victory at Gillette Stadium over the Patriots (10-4, 5-2 home) in the wind and freezing rain. New England went from looking completely overmatched to unstoppable in the span of a quarter. It turned out that the awful start by them came back to bite them, like a basketball team that makes a huge comeback but then falls short.

This win validates San Francisco as the team to beat in the NFC and the NFL too as far as I'm concerned. It could prove to be a particularly costly loss for New England since they lost their firm grip of the No. 2 seed in the AFC and now it looks like they are destined to be No. 3 at best barring an unlikely loss by the Broncos in the final two weeks.

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (14 of 25 for 216 yards, 4 TDs, INT; 28 yards rushing) made his head coach Jim Harbaugh look smart in choosing him over Alex Smith. Tom Brady (36 of 65 for 443 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) carried the Patriots on his back when it appeared hopeless. Still, New England fell to 0-2 against the Harbaughs this season and 1-3 vs. the NFC West as they saw their seven-game win streak overall and 21-game home win streak in December both snapped.

Michael Crabtree (7 catches, 107 yards, 2 TDs) and Frank Gore (21 carries, 83 yards; 2 catches, 34 yards) were the main weapons for Kaepernick although he also spread it around with touchdowns to Delanie Walker and old friend Randy Moss. San Francisco's top-ranked defense held New England's top-ranked offense to a season-low three points in the first half.

The Patriots finally found some success in the second half when Brady sped up the tempo and went no-huddle. Brandon Lloyd (10 catches, 190 yards) had his best game for New England while Danny Woodhead (61 yards rushing, 23 yards receiving, 2 TDs) surprisingly enough was their best running back. Aaron Hernandez (10 catches, 92 yards, TD) and Wes Welker (5 catches, 56 yards) started off slow but in the second half, they also began to find bigger holes in San Francisco's tired defense. The Pats ran 92 plays and racked up 520 total yards.

The main reason that New England came up short (besides the huge deficit) is they lost the turnover battle (4-2) and committed more penalties (8-6). It is rare to see them come out on the wrong side of either of those statistics so when they get beat in both, doubly so. San Francisco actually fumbled six times, including four by Kaepernick but they only lost one whereas New England lost both of theirs (by Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen). Ridley's confidence has to be shaken since he nearly fumbled earlier in the game but he was ruled down.

Moss's 24-yard touchdown catch was the only score of the first quarter. Stephen Gostkowski cut it to 7-3 with a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter. Walker caught a 34-yard touchdown and David Akers's 20-yard field goal was the last play of the first half as the 49ers took a stunning 17-3 lead into the locker rooms.

Devin McCourty picked off Kaepernick to start the second half but New England couldn't take advantage as Ridley fumbled it back to them. Luck was on Kaepernick's side as he fumbled another snap early in the third quarter but Gore picked it up then ran seven yards for a touchdown. Aldon Smith picked off Brady on the next play after he rushed a throw to Hernandez and the supposed rout was on as Kaepernick threw a 27-yard touchdown to Crabtree on the following play.

The Pats chipped away as Woodhead's 6-yard touchdown run gave them their first touchdown with 5:59 left in the third quarter, trailing 31-10. Brady jumped over the pile from a yard out to cut it to 31-17 on the first play of the fourth quarter. After a San Francisco 3-and-out, New England made it a one-score game on Hernandez's 5-yard touchdown catch. Woodhead tied it at 31 with a 1-yard run of his own.

LaMichael James returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards-the play of the game-and the 49ers regained all the momentum they had lost with a 38-yard touchdown catch by Crabtree on the first play after that. The Patriots had to go for it on 4th-and-1 from their own 12 but Brady couldn't connect with Woodhead. From there, it was a matter of field goals (28 yards by Akers; 41 yards by Gostkowski) for the final margin. New England got a chance to take an onside kick but it didn't get that good bounce so Walker grabbed it easily.

After the thrills of back-to-back primetime games (Monday night and Sunday night), the Patriots can take a siesta the next few weeks as they travel to Jacksonville next Sunday afternoon (1 p.m., CBS) to face the hideous Jaguars (2-12, 4th AFC South). That's followed by the regular season finale, at Gillette vs. Miami (6-8, 3rd AFC East) on Sunday, December 30. So yeah, time to get your Christmas shopping done and if you miss the next two games due to the holidays, it honestly isn't the end of the world.

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