By: Ian Logue
The Patriots honored the shooting victims in Connecticut prior to Sunday night’s game
Man…raise your hand if you thought for a brief moment the Patriots were going to pull out Sunday night’s match-up against the San Francisco 49ers.
After spotting them a 31-3 lead New England came roaring back with 28 unanswered second half points and turned what had seemed initially to be shaping up into an embarrassing home loss instead into what ended in a hard fought disappointing defeat.
This was a hard hitting physical game by both teams, and unfortunately New England found themselves in a hole they couldn’t quite dig themselves out of. In the end Jim Harbaugh’s team managed to walk away with a 41-34 win against a team that hadn’t lost a home game in December since losing to the Jets back on December 22nd, 2002.
That being said, here are 12 thoughts from this one:
1) This could spell trouble in the coming weeks – The 49ers defense is one of the better ones in the league, but they did an excellent job completely shutting down the NFL’s highest scoring offense in the first half. You can make the argument that a lot of what went wrong was because of turnovers, but heading into the postseason you have to be little concerned that other teams will obviously try and duplicate what the 49ers did against them – especially with some of the ways they were able to get to Brady. The good news is the look of this offense will change quite a bit as guys like Rob Gronkowski get healthy and get back into the line-up, but they’re potentially going to face some tough teams in the postseason so it’s hard not to wonder if they’ll see teams try some of the things the 49ers did to slow them down.
2) The Patriots were their own worst enemy Sunday night – The interception on the ball thrown to Aaron Hernandez early in the third quarter personified the state they were in for much of the night. They were coming off of a drive that saw Stevan Ridley lose the football after 49ers safety Donte Whitner put a helmet right on the ball (it was textbook – exactly how they coach players to do it) and forced the fumble. It lead to a touchdown to put them up 24-3. Knowing they needed to get back in the game the Patriots tried to answer, but on the play the ball went off of Hernandez’ hands and into the hands of 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith. Immediately when the turnover happened, Hernandez didn’t even chase him. He just stood there with the look of utter frustration on his face. It was tough to feel overly confident at that point, and looking back that was one image that certainly stood out.
3) Ridley needs to shake this game off – The critics will probably hop right on the bandwagon this week against Ridley, despite the fact that he’s been relatively sure handed for much of the year. It was pretty obvious that the 49ers came into Sunday night focused on playing at an intensity level that the Patriots didn’t match until it was too late. Unfortunately for Ridley he fell victim to learning what it’s like battling a tough physical defense, but he needs to have a short memory. His emergence this season has been one of the best stories of the year, having rushed for 1105 yards as well as averaging 4.4 yards per carry. They’re heading into a critical point in the season and they’re definitely going to need his head in the right place for the playoffs.
4) Brandon Lloyd had a good night – Save for an illegal motion penalty Lloyd overall had a strong outing. He finished the night with 10 catches for 190 yards, and made some big plays during the game. San Francisco clearly game planned making sure Wes Welker wasn’t much of a factor, and Lloyd managed to be productive on a night where they needed someone else to step up.
5) Despite early troubles, Aqib Talib bounced back – Talib struggled early in this one but it was great to see him settle down and become a factor as the game wore on. He was a big part of helping the Patriots get back into the game and has really been terrific in solidifying this secondary. Overall he did a good job, and it’s tough not to acknowledge what he’s meant to this football team.
6) Not a great night for Brandon Spikes – The Patriots needed Spikes to have a big night, but it certainly wasn’t his best performance. Spikes seems to be nicked up and he just didn’t look like himself. Having not seen the “All-22″ film on him yet it’s tough to really get a full assessment but he seemed like he was out of position in coverage on a couple of plays and also wasn’t exploding through the hole the way we’re accustomed to. Hopefully he can get healthy in the next couple of weeks because the difference is noticeable when he’s not himself.
7) Brady willed them back into this game – Watching Brady rack up 65 passing attempts and single-handedly will them back into the game was pretty amazing to witness. There were quite a few plays down the stretch where he either had guys in his face or people coming after him and yet he still made an accurate throw to keep the chains moving and convert first downs. Granted the first half was a mess, but taking another look there were a lot of things protection-wise the 49ers were doing to tie up blockers and send someone in free. In the second half they did a better job of reading it and he nearly did enough to win the game.
8) Big night for Danny Woodhead – With Ridley and Shane Vereen struggling to hold onto the ball, Woodhead ended up seeing a lot of action in the game and he did a good job. He carried 12 times for 61 yards along with two touchdowns, and also caught 5 passes for 56 yards. He’s such a versatile player and his vision carrying the ball is something you have to appreciate for a guy who has really settled into his role in the offense. There were several carries he made tonight where he picked up yards on plays where it didn’t seem like there were any to be had, and he really played well.
9) I’m beginning to understand Belichick’s need to stockpile tight ends – After drafting and locking up Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski for the foreseeable future, part of me couldn’t understand the logic for Belichick’s obsession with continuing to add tight ends to the roster. But Michael Hoomanawanui’s 41-yard 3rd quarter reception was a good reminder that you can never have too many skilled players on the roster. On that play it was obvious that the 49ers didn’t think they’d take a shot down the field with him, and it worked to New England’s advantage as it helped set up Tom Brady’s 1-yard touchdown plunge to pull within 31-17 at the time.
10) Milestones were reached in this one – Going over the stat sheet it’s tough not to point out some of the milestones that were reached in this one: Brady extended his touchdown pass streak to 46 straight games and also reached the 30 touchdown pass plateau for the 4th time of his career, tying him with Dan Marino for 4th most all time. They also broke the 500 point total for the 4th time, which makes them the first NFL team to accomplish that feat. Wes Welker also passed the 100 reception mark for the season for the fifth time in his career, which is a new NFL record (Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice did it 4 times). It’s also his 108th consecutive game with a reception. Brady also reached the 300+ plateau for the 53rd time in his career, passing Kurt Warner for 5th most all time as well as throwing for 400+ yards for the third time in his career. It was also Brandon Lloyd’s 15th career 100-yard game.
11) The worst is over – for now: Jacksonville got completely destroyed Sunday 24-3 by a team the Patriots handled fairly well a couple weeks ago in the Miami Dolphins, so this is just the team New England seems to need to get their confidence going again after losing a tough game. This one’s on the road but they’re facing a Jaguars team that is 2-12 and has lost three in a row. After that is Miami, who this time around will be visiting Gillette Stadium. Needless to say these are definitely two games the Patriots should win and should be a little easier than what they’ve dealt with these last two weeks. Good teams are supposed to beat up on poor ones, so if all goes well that will be exactly what we see over the final two games.
12) Kudos to NBC for actually broadcasting the flare ceremony for the Connecticut shooting victims – I thought the idea by the Patriots to fire off the flares in memory of each victim from Friday’s shooting was really a good one, and was concerned the network wouldn’t televise it since they tend to skip every other pregame event. I’ll admit it was tough not to get a little choked up about the fact that those flares symbolized little lights that went out far too soon, and it was a touching moment that thankfully the entire nation got to see.