49ers Hold Off Patriots Late Rally, Clinch Playoff Berth
By Jerrell Richardson
It was not pretty, and San Francisco appeared to be on the verge of blowing a 28-point lead, but in the end it escaped with a 41-34 victory over New England. The 49ers came out dominating the Patriots in all aspects of the game early, and seemed in complete control before Tom Brady caught fire and eventually tied the game at 31 late in the 4th quarter. San Francisco took New England’s best shot, and responded like champions, closing the deal on both sides of the ball, sealing a big win over one of the AFC’s best.
The final score and stats are impressive from an offensive standpoint, but there were several glaring mistakes. The biggest area of concern has to be Kaepernick’s inability to cleanly handle the snap under center. The wet weather did not help, but several exchanges were far from smooth and could have cost the team. Frank Gore was aware enough to pick one up and scamper into the end zone, but an action as simple as the quarterback-center exchange should not be as hard as the 49ers made it look Sunday Night. This must be cleaned up moving forward.
Once able to get the ball in his hands, Kaepernick had another successful night. His quarterback rating of 107.7, included four touchdowns and he completed 14 of his 25 attempts. He did throw an interception, but this was due to inexperience and should be a learning experience for the second-year quarterback. His only sack was due to a breakdown on the offensive line and as a whole, Kaepernick played smart. He looked to Michael Crabtree to be his go-to-guy, as the wideout totaled 107 yards receiving and scored a 38-yard touchdown right after New England tied the game, giving the momentum back to San Francisco.
The defense was a victim of the scoreboard. Early in the game they hurried Brady and took Wes Welker out of the game. After building such a healthy lead, the game plan turned from the aggressive man coverage to the more prevent-based zone scheme. This allowed Brady and the Patriot offense to get into a rhythm that the 49ers were unable to slow for most of the second half. By getting into their style of game, New England controlled the pace of the game, wearing down down the San Francisco pass rush.
Aldon Smith was held without a sack, which is surprising when considering that the Patriots were forced to pass 65 times. Justin Smith suffered an injury that prevented the normal rotation on the defensive line, and with time to pass, Brady craved up the 49ers secondary for 443 yards. This was part of the game plan, though, and the defense as able to cause turnovers and they won the physical battle as well as the one on the scoreboard.
The play of the special teams was up and down. David Akers made two out of three field goals — he missed an early 39-yarder and his two makes were both under 30 yards. Thankfully the game did not come down to a last-minute field goal, as Akers is no longer the reliable kicker he was a year ago. Ted Ginn Jr. also struggled with a muffed punt that he was able to fall on, and got too close to another punt that barely missed striking his hands.
With the game in doubt, however, Andy Lee and LaMichael James came up big. Lee was asked to put five times, with most of his punts coming during New England’s furious rally. He responded under pressure with a 56.6 average and a long of 64 yards. Although Brady seemed intent on going the length of the field no matter where he started, Lee more then did his part in preventing any comeback. The play of the game, though, was LaMichael James 62-yard kickoff return with just under seven minutes left in the game that set up the touchdown pass to Crabtree that was the final nail in the Patriots coffin.
Jim Harbaugh won a game that few gave his team a shot to win. He did make some mistakes along the way, but he outcoached a mastermind in Bill Belichick, and Harbaugh continues to win. Despite the weather conditions, the 49ers came out passing, which back-fired early when the team had a chance to make it a two-possession score and fumbled the ball away. But ultimately it was the pass-first attack that put the team in a position to beat the Patriots in such a high scoring affair. It was also unclear why Harbaugh did not abandon the plays under center after so many close calls. Despite a very conservative second half, the 49ers are a more aggressive team than they have been as of late, and it’s reflected in Harbaugh’s “mistakes.” Just as his asks of his team, Harbaugh must continue to learn and keep his team out of bad situations.
49ers Stay On Course
This game was essentially a playoff game. It was not win or go home, but the contest was physical and intense, and both teams had to respond after being tested mentally. A win is a win, and a victory against a quality opponent like the Patriots can not be ignored, no matter how close it got. The offense was explosive at times, while the defense was able to shut down the Patriots until New England was in desperation mode. The fact that the 49ers had to earn a close win late can only add to their confidence. They clinched a playoff spot, and at the same time took a ton of pressure off next week’s game against Seattle. San Francisco still has a lot to do before the end of the season, but have again passed a major test on the way, and again appear on track to make a deep run in the playoffs.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.