USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots fell way behind against NFC titan San Francisco on Sunday night, but very nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages.
Say this for the Patriots: When they lose, they lose with gusto.
Whether their kicker misses a field goal at the buzzer, they're undone by a flurry of terrible pass defense and bad officiating or burned for a TD bomb by a rookie QB because one of their young defensive backs cannot grasp the most basic of Cover 2 concepts, their losses this year have been doozies.
But none of those could have prepared us for the outcome on Sunday night, when they dropped 41-34 decision to the San Francisco 49ers in what was likely the best game of the year in addition to one of the most incredible games your humble correspondent has ever seen.
Not even half an inch of standing water in your non-waterproof shoes could have kept you from loving this one, in which the Pats, on their home turf, were punished, humiliated and dominated into a 31-3 hole before circling back and exploding for four consecutive TDs in one of the most remarkable comebacks you'll ever witness. That it took just two plays - a 62-yard kickoff return and a 38-yard TD pass - to knock them back down was a cruel reminder that in football, there's not necessarily anything to be said for momentum.
In the end, despite some truly exhilarating play by Tom Brady, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Rob Ninkovich, the Pats, who were complicit in their own demise (four turnovers, multiple key penalties and mental mistakes in all three phases) ran out of gas against a 49ers team that is as for real as for real gets, a group who took the strongest, most powerful wallop the Pats are capable of dishing out and still managed to find the composure and fortitude to get up off the mat and return the favor, leaving Gillette Stadium with something no team has taken out of there in the past 10 Decembers, a win.
Thus, the Pats are now looking like the No. 3 seed in the AFC, which would mean no bye week and one extra playoff game en route to a possible sixth Super Bowl appearance in 12 years. The Pats have had that first-round bye three times in the past four seasons and its gotten them nothing while the New York Giants did not have one in either of their championship years and also had to play five of six playoff games on the road just to get to those two Super Bowls and wound up winning them both anyway. Take from that what you will.
So with that, let's get into this game, one which will not be forgotten around these or too many other parts, for a long time to come.
The Pats' offense was pretty much a 1 in the first half (three points, 113 total yards, 0-for-7 on third down) and pretty much a 5 in the second, with Brady for the most part following suit. His play after the Pats had fallen behind by 28 points was otherworldly, as good as it gets. The way he took the game over during the comeback, orchestrating everything in a way that no one else can, was a sight to behold. He made great call after great call, whether it was a perfect back shoulder throw to Lloyd or his fourth down TD plunge which he does better than any OB there is. The Pats' four straight scoring marches beginning at the 10:21 mark of the third quarter went like this: 13 plays for 73 yards, nine plays for 86 yards, six plays for 66 yards and seven plays for 92 yards. He survived Wes Welker being bracketed on either side for most of the night and Aaron Hernandez suffering somewhat of a down game as well as two huge fumbles from his top two running backs and a couple of interceptions, one of which, a forced deep throw into double coverage that was Sanchez-esque. He showed flashes of what was to come in the second half on the Pats' field goal drive in the second quarter, executing a tremendous fourth down conversion to keep that march going. The Pats made it on five of six fourth down tries and while the one they didn't make was ultimately the difference in the game, Brady's composure made the ones they did convert happen. His 65 pass attempts (a career high) and 443 yards are both probably numbers he and the Pats would rather he didn't have as they both signal the need to throw on practically every play just to stay in the game. But give him a ton of credit for leading the Pats back from one of their worst stretches of the year to make this one a game again.
Running Backs: 2.5
We love Stevan Ridley here at this space but the kid is going to have a short career if he doesn't learn how to put the football away. He got away with one on the second snap of the game when his butt was on the turf a split second before the ball was knocked loose. But in the second half, with the Pats looking ready to start mounting a comeback still down by only 14 and on the heels of a big pick by Devin McCourty, he put it on the ground again, getting the ball knocked out from behind at the end of a nine-yard run because he still doesn't properly secure the ball all the time. Ridley played just one snap following that fumble, which was his third in two weeks and the fourth he's lost this season. For someone who is as talented and powerful as Ridley is, if he winds up getting benched, dropped on the depth chart or not making it in the long run because he can't protect the football, it will be a real shame. Same goes for Shane Vereen, who played two snaps, also fumbled because he was loosely carrying the ball with one arm and never saw the field again. These guys should spend the rest of the season pulling an Omar Epps from "The Program," and simply carry a football with them everywhere they go, whether it's to dinner, to bed or to the bathroom. Thank god for Woodhead, who saved the offense when Bill Belichick benched Ridley and Vereen and wound up the second most valuable skill player on the night behind Lloyd. He played 76 snaps, gained 61 yards on 12 rushing attempts and scored two TDs, the second of which tied the game at 31. A game-changing performance by little Danny, without whom the Pats would have been toast.
Wide Receivers: 4
This is the Brandon Lloyd we've been waiting months and months for. 10 catches, 190 yards and a couple of unbelievable plays that were as good as a receiver can make. His best catch, a leaping, twisting, fingertip grab in the back corner of the end zone that required his typical amazing footwork, didn't even count thanks to an illegal shift penalty. The bottom line is that Lloyd, who even managed to turn up field and pick up some yards after the catch despite contact, put his big boy pants on for this one and engendered a great deal of confidence among the fandom that he can do the things a deep threat receiver can do. Welker was blanketed on either side consistently and didn't make a catch in the first half but still caught five passes for 56 yards to go over 100 catches for the fifth time, the first receiver in NFL history to do that. And even though his production was a bit down, he was the playmaker on one of those fourth down conversions, a perfectly called and executed play fake in the fourth quarter on which he sold a block after lining up as a tight end and released to get wide open. Deion Branch returned to make four catches, one of them on one of those fourth downs and almost coming up with a big TD grab of not for a great, last second play by Niners corner Tarell Brown.
Tight Ends: 3.5
Hernandez caught 10 passes and scored a TD. But he wasn't quite himself. You could attribute that to the Niners' excellent linebackers and safeties, none of whom let him get free for much after he made any of his grabs. Or you could attribute it to the massive hit he took on a third quarter pass over the middle which led to him short arming the next pass Brady threw his way and costing Brady his second pick. This was the first game in which Rob Gronkowski's absence really seemed to cost the Pats. When Welker is constantly doubled and Hernandez, who had four drops, isn't completely on his game (and also frequently doubled in the middle of the field), the Pats' passing game really thins out. Lloyd was outstanding and the Niners definitely took their feet off the gas after going up 31-3 which really sparked the Pats' offense. But had Gronk been out there, both in terms of helping out as a blocker in the running game and adding another receiving threat, it would have taken a great deal of pressure off of Hernandez's shoulders in a match up in which he didn't have the advantage. Big ups to Michael Hoomanawanui for hauling in an incredible 41-yard pass from Brady to set up the Pats' second TD. It was as close to Gronk as possible without actually being him.
Offensive Line: 3
Brady was under a lot of pressure in the first half as most QBs are when they face the Niners' fearsome pass rush. You could see that he was kind of paying more attention to it than he normally does and that may be because even though he was only sacked three times, he was hit another seven and has been beaten up pretty good the past three weeks. There were mixups, penalties and missed assignments. Logan Mankins had a couple of those penalties but he did pretty much control Justin Smith, San Francisco's excellent veteran defensive tackle. His partner in QB terrorizing, Aldon Smith, didn't add to his league-leading 19.5 sack total, but he was in the backfield more than was comfortable and blasted Brady a couple of times. No one else up front for the Pats was clean. Both Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder gave up huge sacks on the Pats' first possession after the Niners regained the lead, forcing a terribly timed punt. Dan Connolly was turned around badly on a sack in the first half that ended a promising drive. And the run blocking, while pretty good considering the Niners' strength against the run, has been much better. Brady only had time consistently when the Niners eased off after they got up 28 but again, once the game was tied, that was when both Vollmer and Solder (who may be playing with an oblique injury) were beaten at the most inopportune time. The O-line, so solid all year long, looks to have sprung some small leaks in the season's final month.
Defensive Line: 2.5
Well, the stellar play of this group over the course of the seven-game win streak was nice and yes, they did some good things on Sunday night. But playing against the Niners' big, powerful O-line and choosing to spend a good deal of time rushing their three giant defensive tackles up the middle perhaps in an attempt to keep Niners' QB Colin Kaepernick, a very good runner, contained in the pocket, hurt them. Kaepernick was kept almost immaculate. He had so much time to throw all night long, it felt like a seven-on-seven drill for long stretches, if not many of the Pats' games from earlier in the year when they simply couldn't get anyone near the opposing QB. And while Kaepernick didn't get outside that much, he still managed to take advantage of all the time he had in the pocket as his four-TD pass performance will attest. Vince Wilfork, while a bit more quiet than he's been of late, still managed to have some very impressive moments, particularly against the run. And Ninkovich came up with a huge sack (the Pats' only one of the game) during the comeback, enabling the Pats to get the ball back for their game-tying drive. Also, credit Justin Francis, the undrafted rookie, who got some valuable time and made a couple of plays in place of Chandler Jones, who was benched in the third quarter and hasn't looked like the same player he was over the course of the first two months of the year since the bye week.
Hightower was pretty good, making a couple of nice reads on screen passes and doing a solid job on the edge in helping to keep Kaepernick and the Niners' running backs between the tackles, though he did lose contain on one big run on the Niners' late first half scoring march. Other than that, not a whole lot. It didn't help the Pats' linebacking corps that they had to share the field with that of the Niners, which is probably the best in the league. But this group is so awful in coverage and so prone at times to making the wrong read/plugging the wrong hole that it wouldn't have mattered who they were opposing. Jerod Mayo, who has been excellent of late, had one of his games to forget. He was bottled up or simply overpowered on multiple runs and overran a few more. He missed a couple of tackles, guessed wrong more than once, mistimed the most important blitz of the game on the Niners' go-ahead score and was simply outclassed by his opposite number, the Niners' Patrick Willis. And Brandon Spikes, who is playing hurt, was pretty much nowhere. Watching him try to cover anyone at this point is somewhat painful. He was on the verge of becoming a terrific all-around linebacker a few weeks ago. Whether it's the injury he's playing through or something else, he's just not there these past couple of games the way he was.
Defensive Backs: 1.5
If there was ever going to be a one-game hiccup for the pats' newly constructed secondary, let's hope Sunday night was it. Because this group was horrible, as bad as earlier in the year before the trade for Aqib Talib and the move of Devin McCourty to safety. McCourty did have a big pick on an underthrown pass by Kaepernick that he played very well. But that was about it. The Niners came out from the jump playing aggressively, attacking on early downs and sending the Pats' defensive backs into retreat mode. All of Kaepernick's TD passes were so easy, they were like stealing. Everyone was beaten for a big play, starting with Alfonzo Dennard, who was being picked on and was also left out to dry by yet another miscommunication/no help over the top situation on a long TD pass to tight end Delanie Walker before leaving with an injury. Talib joined the "why bother to look back at the ball" party and drew a 35-yard interference penalty. McCourty and Steve Gregory were both late helping up top more than once, with McCourty misreading the first quarter TD pass to old buddy Randy Moss in a major way. And Kyle Arrington, moved back outside after Dennard's injury, was left one-on-one with Niners' top target Michael Crabtree on the game winning TD thanks to the blitz up the middle but still had him lined up after the catch only to completely whiff on the tackle, allowing Crabtree to practically walk in for the score. It was so bad for these guys, even Patrick Chung found his way back into the regular playing rotation. Again, this could have been a one-time thing. And as well as this group has played over the past month, there have been some big mistakes that it's gotten away with. Just not on Sunday night against the best team its faced since the Talib trade.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 2.5
The worst special teams performance of the year for the Pats by a wide mile and it killed them throughout the game. They allowed a fake punt on a fourth-and 10 in the first quarter that went for 31 yards. The 62-yard kickoff return after the game-tying TD led directly to the Niners reclaiming the lead. And there were three holding penalties on punt coverage, the last of which backed them up to their own 3 down by a touchdown with just under three minutes left. Just brutal all around. Captain Matthew Slater called the performance an embarrassment after the game and it's tough to argue with him.
The coaching deserves both some ups and some downs. Belichick and staff did keep their team in it when the Pats looked as cooked as cooked gets. The Niners let up some after going ahead 31-3 and the play calling/offensive approach reflected it. You could see what an important part of this organization being mentally tough is and it was on display big time in the second half. Some teams fall way behind (hello, Houston!) and roll over. The Pats nut it up and fight. It almost resulted in one of the greatest come from behind victories in league history.
Whether or not Belichick made the right call going for it on fourth down deep in his own end late in the game (note: he did, it was just the play call that wasn't right), the Pats never stopped playing to win. It's tough to really judge the game plan prior to the Pats falling way behind because there were so many turnovers, so many mistakes, that everything was muddied up pretty early. Maybe they could have run less or thrown more or done this or tried that; the point is things were thrown way out of whack starting early on.
The Pats got the crap beaten out of them yet still had enough resolve to make it a game against a team they could well see again come Super Bowl week. As ugly as that first half was, they could have (and probably should have) been down by a lot more than seven points after the first quarter and 14 after the first half. They didn't play well, but they hung in there and showed how tough they are. If there are any true positives to take out of a loss, having the balls to keep within themselves and get back in it is at the top of the list and that's just what the Patriots did.
Losing sucks but competing, fighting and showing the kind of heart they showed makes it suck a little bit less.