By: Bob George/
December 17, 2012

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FOXBOROUGH -- The 49ers know what it's like to overcome a 28-point deficit, and they almost found out what it was like to blow a 28-point lead.

Some 32 years ago, the Joe Montana 49ers trailed New Orleans, 31-3 and rallied to win, which is still the NFL record for the biggest deficit overcome in the regular season. That was the very same score the 49ers led the Patriots by midway through the third quarter. But the 49ers backed off and played a soft zone, Tom Brady did what he does better than everyone else in the league, and by the middle of the fourth quarter it was tied at 31. From this moment on, whichever team played like a champion would win this unexpectedly classic game.

Within a blink of an eye, it was the 49ers who accomplished just that. A 62-yard kickoff return by LaMichael James, and a quick throw to Michael Crabtree on a blitz for a 38-yard touchdown put the 49ers back up by seven points in the span of just 18 seconds. San Francisco would not lose this lead, and held on at the end for a 41-34 win at rainy Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. These two lightning-quick plays wiped out what would have been an epic comeback for the Patriots, and the Patriots now must come to grips with a much worsened playoff position and a possible negation of the big win last week against Houston.

Instead of looking at a first round bye, the Patriots are now looking at their season likely coming to an end in Denver. The Broncos beat Baltimore earlier in the day on the road and now hold the two seed in the conference. If Denver wins out, they clinch a first round bye. Assuming Houston earns home field, all signs point to a Patriots-Broncos Divisional round matchup at Invesco Field. Going up against Peyton Manning in a city and field where they historically do terribly in, especially in the playoffs, does not portend January prosperity for the Patriots.

Give the Patriots credit for making the comeback, but the Patriots were fortunate that they were not behind by many more points, and the 49ers basically let them back in the game by backing off of the physical and blitzing defensive game plan which completely shut the Patriots down in the first half. The 49ers had drives stalled on a missed field goal, a lost fumble and two bad center exchanges by Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. But thanks to the 49ers' defense, the Patriots were totally unable to take advantage of these San Francisco miscues.

Things began ugly for the Patriots early on. Stevan Ridley coughed the ball up on the first offensive possession, but replay showed that he was flat on his back when the ball popped out. After a three-and-out, Kaepernick made the Patriots look like the sad sacks on defense they looked like in September. He hit Crabtree for 10 and 13 yards, hit Randy Moss for 12 yards, and then three plays later made the Patriots suffer the ultimate indignity with Kaepernick lobbing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Moss, with Moss running right by Alfonzo Dennard and making it look as easy as 2007.

Before the first quarter was over, the Patriots were on their fifth offensive possession but only down 7-0. After the touchdown to Moss, Kaepernick fumbled a snap and thus forced a three-and-out. One play later, Brady tried to lob a deep ball to Wes Welker but instead plopped it into the arms of Carlos Rogers. He returned it 53 yards, but Brady tripped him up at the 5. Two plays later, Kaepernick hit Delanie Walker in the right flat one yard, but Steve Gregory hit him and jarred the ball loose. Aqib Talib recovered the fumble, but the Patriots were stopped three-and-out.

The next 49ers drive ended with David Akers yanking a 39-yard field goal wide left. But four plays into the next drive, Shane Vereen took a four yard pass in the right flat and was hit by NaVorro Bowman, coughing up the football. Dashon Goldson recovered the fumble, but the drive ended on fourth down when Kaepernick fumbled a snap at the Patriot 25 and was stopped for no gain.

Still down only 7-0 and lucky it wasn't 24-0, Brady finally led the Patriots on a scoring drive. This one went 62 yards in 16 plays, but a sack of Brady by Ray McDonald on third down forced the Patriots to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. The 49ers seemed to take control of the game at this point, as they scored ten points on the last two offensive drives of the half. Kaepernick found Walker for 34 yards in the right corner of the end zone with Dennard in coverage to make it 14-3, then on the final play of the half Akers made a 20-yard field goal.

The 49ers got the ball to start the second half. The Patriots seemed to rip momentum away from the 49ers with an end zone interception on the seventh play of the drive. But Ridley gave the ball right back to the 49ers four plays later when he was pulverized by Donte Whitner and Goldson returned the fumble 66 yards to the Patriot 3. On the next play, Kaepernick once again fumbled the snap, but Frank Gore picked it up at the 9 and ran it in for the touchdown. Two plays later, Brady suffered his second pick of the night as a ball caromed off Aaron Hernandez's fingertips in the left flat and was caught in midair by Aldon Smith. One play later, Kaepernick hit Crabtree right down the middle, splitting the safeties for a 27-yard touchdown pass to make it 31-3 San Francisco.

From this point on the 49ers went to a soft zone defense, and Brady was able to finally find a rhythm and find the end zone on each of the next four offensive possessions. Hernandez and Danny Woodhead got most of the touches on the first drive, and Woodhead culminated the 13-play, 78-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown run. The Patriots then drove 85 yards to the San Francisco one-yard line, and on fourth down Brady snuck it in to make it 31-17 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

After a three-and-out, the Patriots got the ball at their own 34. A 38-yard pass interference call on Tarell Brown led to a five-yard touchdown pass to Hernandez in the left flat, and it was a one-score game at 31-24. Then on the next drive, Brady found Brandon Lloyd for 53 yards on a right sideline lob pass, helping to set up a Woodhead one-yard run to tie the contest at 31-31 with 6:43 left in the game. The Patriots had just gone on a 28-0 run, shutting Kaepernick and the 49ers offense down completely and Brady finally finding an offensive rhythm.

But just like that, the tie game was no longer. James took the ensuing kickoff from the goal line and ran it 62 yards to the Patriot 38 as he was able to find a seam up the left side. On the very next play, with the Patriots in a full blitz mode, Kaepernick was able to hit Crabtree in the left flat with only Kyle Arrington in coverage. Once Arrington whiffed on the tackle, Crabtree was off and may still be running.

From this moment on, the 49ers put the game away with two defensive stops. Sacks by McDonald and Ricky Jean-Francois killed the first drive, and two misfires to Woodhead killed off the next drive at the Patriot 11. A late exchange of field goals ended the scoring.

Brady had a passer rating of only 68.9 despite 443 yards passing, thanks largely to the two interceptions. Both Ridley and Vereen suffered lost fumbles, making it four total giveaways by the Patriots. Kaepernick had a rating of 107.7 and did well other than taking snaps from center.

The Patriots will likely wind up with the three seed, as they have easy games left with Jacksonville and Miami. They are heading towards a Wild Card home game, and a subsequent likely Divisional date at Denver.

The way the 49ers looked tonight, who would want to face them in the Super Bowl?