FOXBOROUGH — The qualifier “in a losing effort” should not be applied to the performance delivered by Tom Brady Sunday night. The final score might not have labeled Brady a winner, but everything about the way he rallied the Patriots from a 28-point third-quarter deficit broadcast it in stereo.
Brady reminded us once again why he has carved out a place in the Boston sports Mount Rushmore — or Passmore, as it was last night for the Patriots. Somewhere Bill Belichick’s buddy Tony La Russa was wincing as Brady blew right by his pitch count, chucking the ball a career-high 65 times, including 46 in the second half.
He completed 36 passes for 443 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions, against the best defense he is likely to see all season. It was the fourth 400-yard passing game of Brady’s career, and he went over 4,000 yards (4,276) for the fifth time.
But mere numbers don’t do Brady’s night justice. Attempts, completions, yards can’t measure his greatest skill, the one that took him from unheralded sixth-round pick to one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time — sheer will.
With almost any other quarterback in the league, this game wouldn’t have been in doubt in the final 38 seconds.
With his gilded arm and steely determination, Brady turned what looked like a blowout into a shootout. But it wasn’t enough as the team Brady rooted for as a kid, the San Francisco 49ers, came into Gillette Stadium and escaped with a 41-34 victory.
The Patriots trailed, 31-3, with 10:21 left in the third quarter. An interception by Aldon Smith, who had proclaimed the 49ers could stop the Patriots’ potent offense and looked like a pigskin prophet, set up San Francisco at the Patriots’ 27. On the next play, Colin Kaepernick found Michael Crabtree for a 27-yard touchdown and a 28-point lead.
It looked like the Patriots (10-4) were going to be on the wrong end of a prime-time humbling this time.
But Tom Terrific had other ideas. He led the Patriots on four consecutive touchdown drives, the last of which tied the game at 31 with 6:43 left.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Brady pulled the Patriots within two touchdowns on a 1-yard quarterback sneak. On the next Patriots’ possession, Brady passed on all seven snaps, the last of which was a 5-yard touchdown to Aaron Hernandez.
Brady got the ball back at his 8, down, 31-24, with 9:56 to go. He led the Patriots down the field in 3:13 to the tying score. He completed a 53-yard pass to Brandon Lloyd down the right sideline to move to the San Francisco 29. His 5-yard scramble gave the Patriots first and goal at the 1, and Danny Woodhead punched it in to cap a remarkable comeback.
You’re never out of it with TB12.
“I didn’t think so,” said Brady. “I had a feeling we would be able to come back. We hung in there and battled back from a 28-point deficit. We just made too many mistakes when we needed to make the plays. It’s a tough loss, but we have to try to get some things corrected.”
The Patriots’ euphoria was short-lived, though, because Brady can’t play special teams and defense too, two areas that were sorely lacking Sunday night. LaMichael James returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to the Patriots’ 38. One player later, Crabtree took a pass from Kaepernick (14 of 25 for 216 yards and four touchdown passes with one interception) and shook free from Kyle Arrington for a 38-yard touchdown.
Here is all you need to know about how the night went: With 3:39 left in the third quarter, Kaepernick (166) had more passing yards than Brady (165).
In the first half, the Patriots were 0 for 7 on third down and had just 113 yards of offense and 3 points. The team of Brady’s youth made stopping him look like child’s play, as he was 10 for 19 for 76 yards. The Patriots finished 2 of 15 on third down.
This game was a referendum on whether the conventional thinking about good defense being able to stop great offense was still true in the defense-endangered NFL. It was the No. 1 offense in the league vs. the No. 1 defense. It was new-age football vs. the old faithful route. It was a sledgehammer vs. a precision laser cutter.
The verdict is defense still rules — barely.
Entering the game these were two beacons of ball security in the league. The Patriots had turned it over just 10 times. The 49ers had 12 giveaways.
But the frigid and damp weather turned the football into a curling stone — cold, wet, and slippery. The 49ers fumbled six times and lost one. The Patriots lost both of their fumbles and the turnover battle, with four to San Francisco’s two.
The Patriots fumbled once officially in the first half — a Stevan Ridley fumble was overturned by video replay — and lost it.
Ridley fumbled for real in the third quarter, the ball popping up in the air and ending up in the arms of Dashon Goldson, who returned it 66 yards to the New England 3. The 49ers then had a fortuitous fumble. The ball squirted free from Kaepernick at the 3, and it was scooped by Frank Gore at the Patriots’ 9 and run into the end zone.
It was that kind of night for Brady and the Patriots.
Sometimes not even having Brady on your side is enough to absolve all sins, a lesson the Patriots have learned over and over the last couple of years.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.