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Dan Shaughnessy

Patriots are still AFC’s team to beat

Tom Brady and the Patriots walked off the field as losers on Sunday.

CJ GUNTHER/EPA

Tom Brady and the Patriots walked off the field as losers on Sunday.

There are good wins and bad wins. There are bad losses . . . and good losses.

This was a good loss.

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The Patriots were beaten by the San Francisco 49ers, 41-34, Sunday night, and I submit that this was a defeat that could come in handy if the Patriots are going to get where they want to go.

This comes not from a Patriot toady, or one of the dozens of those who “report” on the Patriots while also working for the team. This comes from one who has tried to be objective about the local gridders — an effort that infuriates legions of fanboys and suckups who promote the message of All Things Patriot Place (these burgers at CBS Scene are yummy, are they not?).

I have no dog in this fight. It’s not as if Daddy Globe owns 17 percent of the Patriots or the Krafts are going to give me my own lifeguard chair in the press box. But I still like the Pats more than anybody else in the AFC. Even after they were dominated by the 49ers for the first 35 minutes of Sunday night’s’ exciting and interminable game.

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The Niners play Big Boy Football. They ignored the league-wide memo that urges all Patriot opponents to wet their pants at the sight of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They did not forget everything they knew. They did not do stupid things and surrender before the game started.

They played in the image of their coach; tough and wacky Jim Harbaugh.

We knew Harbaugh was paying attention when he won the coin toss and made the Patriots take the ball to start the game. This was the first indication that it was going to be a long night for the locals. The Patriots don’t want the ball at the start. The Patriots have not elected to take the ball at the start since Game 1 of the 2008 season. A worthy opponent tries to make you do what you don’t want to do. Harbaugh had the Patriots off balance right from the jump.

The plain truth is that the Niners could have led, 44-3 when it was 31-3. They fumbled inside the Patriot 10. Colin Kaepernick overthrew one of his receivers who had beaten the coverage. They missed a 39-yard field goal attempt.

They gashed the Patriots on the ground and exposed New England’s defensive backfield. It was the same stuff we saw early in the season and it makes you worry what could happen when the Patriots next play against an elite quarterback (the Manning brothers both qualify).

Meanwhile, the Niners defense stuffed the Patriots. They took away the New England running game. They pressured Brady. They forced a ton of three-and-outs. They stoned the Patriots’ vaunted offense. They forced the Patriots to turn the ball over. They made the Patriots switch back to the hurryup, pass-only, dink-and-dunk offense. And then they made it easy for the Patriots by trying to cover receivers instead of pressuring Brady.

But the Niners served notice that there are teams out there (hello, Giants, Packers, maybe Broncos) who are not afraid of the Patriots. There are coaches (Tom Coughlin, Rex Ryan, Harbaugh-of-your-choice) who do not quake at the sight of the Hoodie.

The bad part about the Sunday loss is that it makes the Patriots’ path much tougher. New England had a good shot at a bye and home field throughout the playoffs. Now they are almost certainly going to have to play a first-round game (no Patriot Super Bowl winner played a first-round game). And it looks like they’re going to Denver for a second-round game on the weekend of January 12-13. The road just got a lot harder.

But the good loss will help them. The Patriots showed a lot of character in Sunday’s game. They trailed, 31-3, with 10:21 left in the third and came close to winning in a blowout. Really. After Danny Woodhead’s touchdown capped the comeback and tied the game, 31-31, I felt like the Patriots were going to score two more touchdowns and beat the Niners, 45-31. If the Patriots had kept the momentum and won this game, it would have matched the greatest comeback in NFL regular-season history.

Unlike the frauds from Houston, the Patriots did not quit when they fell behind by four touchdowns. They turned it around. They dominated the team that was dominating them.

It will serve them well. It will prohibit complacency. It will give Belichick ammo in the film room. It will remind Stevan Ridley that he can never again fumble the football. It will shrink their heads a little and help them avoid losing a playoff game to a team they dominated during the regular season.

They needed to show us they can play from behind. They have had too many easy games.

Now we know. We know they can take a punch. We know they can score at will on the mighty 49er defense. We know that Gronk is coming back and they have two layup games to prepare for the long playoff stretch.

Sunday’s loss only reinforces the notion that they are the best team in the AFC. I still love these guys to go to the Super Bowl.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.
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