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How the 49ers ended an epic meltdown

Team responded after furious rally

49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, left, scored the winning touchdown for San Francisco.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, left, scored the winning touchdown for San Francisco.

FOXBOROUGH — It seemed at times as if the clock wasn’t moving at all. Only the Patriots were moving, blasting down the field toward the end zone again and again. The 49ers were crumbling, their vaunted defense giving up 28 straight points, turning a seeming blowout into a demoralizing loss.

That ended, and quickly.

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“Just got to make a play,” Michael Crabtree said, of his thoughts after the Patriots had tied the score with 6:43 to go in the game. “Got to make something happen. We’ve got to win. That’s all that’s going through my head.”

LaMichael James returned the subsequent kickoff 62 yards to the Patriots 38. On the first play, Colin Kaepernick hit Crabtree on the left sideline and he blew past Kyle Arrington all the way to the end zone to put the 49ers back on top, 38-31, en route to a 41-34 victory Sunday night.

The pass wasn’t designed to go to Crabtree.

“Nice job by Colin,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That was not where he was supposed to go with the ball. It wasn’t the intended play. But he saw what he saw, kicked it out to Michael, and Michael made a huge play.”

It was all so stunning. It was stunning that the Patriots had gotten back into the game after falling behind, 31-3, in the third quarter. It was stunning, too, that San Francisco was able to reverse momentum that seemed firmly on the side of the home team. And in just 18 seconds.

The pass to Crabtree was the fourth touchdown pass of the evening for Kaepernick, who has gone 4-1 since replacing Alex Smith.

Crabtree had the game’s biggest grab, a 38-yard touchdown after the Patriots had tied the score at 31.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Crabtree had the game’s biggest grab, a 38-yard touchdown after the Patriots had tied the score at 31.

“I told Kap to put the ball up and he did, and [I] took off running,” Crabtree said. “Just taking charge. I had to take advantage of everything they give to me. If it’s a 5-yard hitch, I’ve got to make it happen. I just took it. Kap trusted me. We made it happen.”

Kaepernick finished 14 for 25 for 216 yards and four touchdowns with one interception for a passer rating of 107.7. He has brought the dynamism that Smith never could to an offense that had been known for simply trying not to mess up games won by the team’s defense.

It was the defense that faltered in this one, nearly giving away the 28-point second-half lead that Kaepernick and the offense had built — with help from the defense, of course.

The deciding score wasn’t just Kaepernick-to-Crabtree, though. James helped set it up with his return.

“I did as much as I could to help the team win, and that is pretty much it,” James said. “One play doesn’t win a game, though, but I think it put us in good position to get the score. It was a game-changing play and it helped us win.”

Harbaugh said, “[James] did a great job of staying in bounds. Tremendous run. Huge play, huge play in the game.”

And a huge win for the 49ers. Despite all the Patriots’ comeback, San Francisco came out with the win, clinching a postseason spot in the process.

“I used to live next to a train station in Chicago,” Harbaugh said. “It’s like the more you hear the train, the less you hear it. I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure in big games — the more you hear it, the less you hear it; the more you feel it, the less you feel it.

“So I feel good about that. I feel good about our team in those big-game situations.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.
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