49ers weather Patriots imperfect storm, clinch playoffs
Improbable as it seemed, following a first half monsoon of Aldon Smith and the San Francisco 49ers’ dominance punctuated by 142 yards on the ground, an immovable defense, rain aided turnovers, and a well-timed 39-yard run on a fake punt, the New England Patriots offense took the field before their own end zone as 96 yards stood between them and a game-tying TD with 3 minutes to go. The Niners left a myriad of scoring opportunities on the field, managing only a 24-yard pass to Randy Moss for a touchdown on four possessions in the 1st quarter.
The league’s best defense stone-walled the NFL’s top offense and gave their own offense multiple opportunities to put the home team away early. But, fumbled snaps by Colin Kapernick, another Akers FG miss, and a catch and fumble by Delaney Walker kept the game close. Despite three 3 and outs by the Pats offense, a Shane Vereen fumble, and a rare Foxboro interception by Tom Brady, the Niners could only muster a 17-3 lead at the half.
As they stretched the lead to 31-3 in the 3rd quarter, the Niners went into a prevent offense and amassed a slew of their own 3 and outs. Conversely, Brady went nuclear from the no-huddle, stringing together speedy and efficient scoring drives of 3:41, 1:04, and 3:13. The team shook off four turnovers, eradicating a 28-point deficit to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 in the 3rd.
With all the pressure squarely on the shoulders of San Francisco, LaMichael James shot out of a cannon up the sideline on the ensuing kickoff for 62 desperately needed yards. Kaepernick immediately took to the air and threw a bullet to Crabtree on a comeback route over the New England blitz. Crabtree nabbed the pass, dodged Kyle Arrington, his would-be tackler, and raced into the end zone to regain the lead at 38-31.
The Niners defense forced the Pats offense back to the bench with consecutive sacks from players not named Smith, rather McDonald for his second of the game and Jean-Francois. Ted Ginn, Jr., dodging a reminiscent punt coverage nightmare from ricochet off his leg, almost hand delivered an early X-Mas gift to the Pats with a near muffed punt. Luckily, he crawled atop the loose ball just in time. Each offense traded field goals to sustain the high drama, but Delaney Walker recovered the onside kick, rectifying his catch and fumble, and ended the sleeper, blow out turned barn-burner at 41-34, the Pats first loss at home in December since 2002.
Frank Gore carried the ball 21 times for 83 yards, including some key gains throughout the game to shorten the field in long down situations and a scoop and counter off a bad red zone snap for a touchdown. Danny Woodhead ran in two scores and 61 yards for the Pats. Kapernick threw 14/25 for 216 yards, 4 touchdowns, a fumble, and an interception, while Brady racked up 443 yards on 65 attempts, completing a touchdown pass and 2 interceptions. Crabtree turned 7 catches into 107 yards. Brandon Lloyd tallied 10 receptions for 190 yards against his former team. Wes Welker surpassed 100 catches for a record 5th time, breaking a Jerry Rice record of four 100-grab seasons, shared by Marvin Harrison and Brandon Marshall.
The Niners look to lock up the division in Seattle, another incredibly hostile road site for quite possibly the greatest pitching duel in NFL history. The Chicago Cubs’ Colin Kaepernick matches arm strength with the Colorado Rockies’ Russell Wilson for the NFC West. A shutout seems doubtful considering the two teams current scoring streaks, yet, stranger things have happened. The NFC West is now considered one of the tougher divisions; inconceivable just a few years ago, so, as the saying goes, get your popcorn ready.
Maybe an umbrella, too.
Jonathan Cha is an NFL writer for TPF. He often wonders aloud why teams run when they should pass, and vice versa. He can be contacted at JCha@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com.