Monday, December 17, 2012

49ers Outlast Patriots, 41-34

San Francisco came to town and played the part of inhospitable guests, building a 28-point lead and hanging on for a 41-34 victory over the Patriots.  The loss dropped the Pats a game behind the Broncos for the second seed in the AFC, and all but puts the #1 seed out of reach.  Next week it's a tilt against the Jaguars in Jacksonville (site of the Patriots' most recent Super Bowl victory), and they need a win to stay ahead of the Baltimore Ravens and avoid slipping to the #4 seed.

The game was ugly early, great for about 18 minutes, and then depressing late.  Speaking of late, it's after 3:00, so I'll keep this update brief.  Not much to say beyond "Patriots stunk up the joint" anyway.

First, credit where it is due -- San Fran head coach Jim Harbaugh put together a great game plan.  He attacked the Patriots defense with ingenious schemes, attacked their offense with brute force and turnovers, and used special teams to extend drives and (more importantly) to keep the Pats backed up all game long.

The first 49ers score came when two receivers lined up next to each other and ran fly patterns into the end zone.  Both got behind the defensive backs, and the safety was late getting over, so it was an easy touchdown to Randy Moss -- though it could have gone to the tight end just as easily.  On another touchdown, they ran two tight ends to the same half of the end zone, but their scheme left the Patriots' Alfonzo Dennard alone to defend both players -- another easy touchdown.

They also ran a fake punt, which is something they probably saw in film study.  And with the combination of turnovers and great punting, the average 49ers drive started on their 46 yard line, whereas the average Patriots drive started on their own 20 yard line.  Patriots special teams penalties contributed to that disparity, too, but it was mostly great punting and kickoff coverage by San Francisco.

The Niners defense was good enough to hold the Pats for a half.  But giving more credit where it is due, the Patriots made outstanding halftime adjustments, and scored four touchdowns in less than 20:00 of game time.  Unfortunately, they'd dug themselves too deep a hole.  Down by 28 points, they had to be perfect just to catch up, which they did -- but then, they slipped up a few times down the stretch and San Francisco took advantage and put the game away.

In the Patriots first 9 possessions, they had: 3 three-and-outs, 1 four-and-out, 2 lost fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 1 field goal.  Their second fumble and second interception came on their first two possessions of the third quarter, and those turnovers left them down 31-3, and all looked hopeless.  But once the Pats stopped stopping themselves, they roared back to tie the game.

Not often you lose the turnover battle 4-2 and even have a chance to win.  But the Pats defense stopped the 49ers on five second-half possessions, while the offense racked up four straight touchdowns.  But alas, the Niners used a great kickoff return to set up a one-play touchdown and vault back into the lead.  And the Patriots offense looked like it would score to tie it again, but two sacks on consecutive plays ended that drive, and effectively any chance to win the game.

It wasn't all bad, so here are some of the good things that happened:

1.  Great halftime adjustments by the offensive line coach and the offensive coordinator.  If not for turnovers, they could well have pulled out the game, the turnaround was that stunning.

2.  Tom Brady's touchdown-saving tackle after an interception -- and the defense turning the ball back over to the offense two plays later.

3.  Brandon Lloyd ended up with 10 catches for 190 yards, by far his best game with the Patriots.  This is a very encouraging sign, as the team chugs toward the playoffs.  Oh, and San Francisco had no answer for Aaron Hernandez (10 for 92), and they couldn't cover Wes Welker in the second half (5 for 56).

4.  Danny Woodhead's shifty running style worked better against the large 49ers defense; he had 61 yards on the ground, 5 catches for 23 yards, and 2 rushing TDs.  Once a millstone on the first- and second-down offense, he's a nice change of pace, especially against lumbering defensive linemen. 
 And to be balanced, here are some of the lowlights for the Patriots:

1.  Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen -- tsk tsk tsk, take better care of the ball.  If not, Brandon Bolden will get your carries in the postseason.

2.  The interior of the Patriots defense was repeatedly gashed for big yards right up the middle.  And when they had shots at SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they didn't take them, letting up or letting him get away instead.

3.  Secondary miscommunications and/or poor design -- too many 49ers receivers running wide open, especially in the end zone.

4.  8 penalties for 73 yards, the worst of which was an illegal shift that negated a touchdown.  There were also several penalties that canceled out good punt returns and gave the offense a long field to drive.

5.  The referees -- made the game too long, blew several pass interference calls on both sides, somehow missed a muffed punt, and spent too much time talking with coaches.

So where does this leave us?  10-4 and needing help to secure a playoff bye.  But don't count on it.  The Patriots could run the table, but Denver has to lose to Cleveland or Kansas City, neither of which seems likely to give the Broncos much of a game.  Next week it's Jacksonville, who will pay the price for the Patriots missteps this week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  Brandon Lloyd had almost as many yards yesterday (190) as he had in the previous five games combined (214).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "Can't win 'em all -- especially when they fumble six times and you only get one of them."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  10-4!

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