Looking back at the Patriots’ 41-34 loss to the 49ers Sunday night, you’re left with a bit of an odd feeling.
On the whole, outside of a dismal special teams performance, the Patriots didn’t play poorly, even when falling behind, 31-3. They certainly weren’t dominated, though superb 49ers end Justin Smith was tough to handle before suffering an injury.
And outside of Danny Woodhead and Brandon Lloyd, the Patriots didn’t play great as they staged a nearly historic comeback — even Tom Brady, who missed a fair share of throws.
Also didn’t get the sense that the Patriots failed to show up. Yes, certainly the 49ers landed the first punch — which is extremely important when you’re dealing with a couple of heavyweights — but the Patriots were more unsettled than overwhelmed.
What we were left with was this feeling: bet the Patriots hope to get another shot at the 49ers because now they know what to expect. Of course, that neglects the countermoves that the impressive 49ers coaching staff, led by Jim Harbaugh, would also concoct in a rematch. But that’s, hopefully, a discussion for a fine Sunday in February.
Guessing that when Bill Belichick and his coaches viewed the film, they came away with the feeling that they didn’t prepare the players as well as they could have. Not to excuse it, but that’s going to happen on a short week and when you’re a game-plan team on offense and defense facing a totally unfamiliar opponent.
The 49ers are completely different than any team in the league, from the schematics on offense to the array of talent on defense.
And all of it threw the Patriots for a loop for which they nearly weren’t able to recover from. New England, from the coaches to the players, couldn’t get a handle on the 49ers and how best to play them for a good portion of the game.
On offense, the Patriots couldn’t decide whether they wanted to run the ball, use one, two, or three tight ends, spread out the 49ers with three receivers, go hurry up in spurts or the entire game.
Once the scoreboard dictated that the Patriots had to go spread with the hurry up, things slowed down for them and they were able to gain some traction.
On defense, the Patriots started in their 4-3, then switched back and forth with a 3-4 while going through constant changes in the front seven, especially on the line, that kept the unit from getting in a flow.
That led to the most problematic factor, and most concerning if there is a rematch, for the Patriots: a distinct lack of pressure from the defense. Despite blitzing the 49ers on 40 percent of the dropbacks, the Patriots only came up with pressure on 16.7 percent of the dropbacks. The latter figure is what the Patriots do against Mark Sanchez of the Jets (16.7 in first matchup, 15.4 in the second). It’s OK against a quarterback who has accuracy problems, but Colin Kaepernick is far from that — and he wasn’t flawless against the Patriots.
It was a little easier for the 49ers heading into this game because they had the extra day and their offense is a lot to prepare for with the playbook expanded under the athletic Kaepernick. The 49ers, with limited game film available on Kaepernick, are able to dictate the game offensively right now — but that won’t last.
And defensively, the 49ers do what they do. It’s certainly not exotic — it’s beautiful in its simplicity — but the unit from top to bottom is the most impressive collection of talent in the league. Combine that with that fact everyone is almost always on the same page and well coached, and you almost have to face them once to get a true appreciation for what they are. That’s why, when the 49ers struggle, it’s usually with divisional foes most familiar with them. They know what to expect.
Will the Patriots get another chance at the 49ers? That’s for fate and the playoff matches to decide. But we’re going to go out on a limb and say the Patriots would very much like that to happen. That was not even close to their best on Sunday night. Now all they can do is fight and hope for another chance.
Here are the positional ratings against the 49ers:
Quarterback (Rating: 3.5 out of 5)
On the whole, Brady was solid against a very good defense. Even during the comeback, Brady didn’t stand out with his physical play, though you can’t place a proper value on his will and ability to manipulate the defense at the line. The interception intended for Wes Welker was a bad decision combined with a poor throw. Shane Vereen in the flat against NaVorro Bowman, who had slipped, was the only other viable option. Yes, there could have been an illegal contact call against cornerback Carlos Rogers, but the throw still had a chance to be completed if Brady led Welker more since the safety had taken a bad angle and was out of the play. Perfect throw, great catch on Brady to Lloyd for 53 yards midway through the fourth quarter. Brady’s mind was the difference because he read single-high safety, looked left for a while after the snap to hold Donte Whitner, and then came back to Lloyd, who had 22 yards after the catch. Been waiting for that play all season. The Patriots are going to need it to go where they want to go, because good teams will clamp down on Welker and the tight ends, even when Rob Gronkowski returns.
Running backs (Rating: 2 of 5)
Woodhead was tremendous, while the fumble twins, Stevan Ridley and Vereen, nearly coughed up the game themselves. That being said, Ridley’s fumble just after halftime was a tough play that you really can’t do much about. Whitner put his helmet right on the ball. It was a perfect defensive play. Whether it was running or catching, Woodhead had perhaps his best game as a Patriot — and boy, did they need it. Woodhead was at his best on the 15- and 6-yard runs that got the Patriots their first touchdown. He does a great job of being patient and setting up blocks while still moving forward. On the touchdown run, Woodhead broke tackles of Bowman and safety Dashon Goldson, two formidable and physical players.
Receivers (Rating: 3.5 of 5)
Everyone but Aaron Hernandez delivered in a big spot, which is a good sign. Probably not the wisest decision for Josh McDaniels to call a bubble screen to Hernandez (three drops) right after he got crushed helmet-to-helmet on the play prior by Goldson. Hernandez understandably shied away from extending himself with defenders attacking him, and that directly led to the Patriots’ second turnover in three plays. Welker, who was doubled-teamed much of the game, made a really nice adjustment on the fourth-and-2 pass out in the flat. That was not an easy catch, especially in the clutch. Lloyd was terrific with four standout catches and a drawing pass interference penalty. Spectacular throw and catch by Brady and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on his 41-yard reception.
Offensive line (Rating: 3 of 5)
This group definitely was to blame for the early struggles of the offense, as they had trouble comprehending the physical nature of Aldon Smith (no sacks but five hurries and two knockdowns in an unimpressive performance where his motor could be questioned), Justin Smith, and Ray McDonald. On third and 1 on the opening possession, Dan Connolly was blown off the ball by McDonald, which started the chain reaction that allowed Bowman to take Ridley down for a 2-yard loss. When you factor in that Brady dropped back to pass 68 times, the 25 percent pressure rate allowed by the Patriots was actually a solid day’s work (though the degree of difficulty was low since the 49ers blitzed just 9 percent of the dropbacks). Not surprising considering where the 49ers’ talent resides, the left side of the line and center Ryan Wendell had the roughest performance. Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer were solid.
Defensive line (Rating: 2.5 out of 5)
Rob Ninkovich (sack, two hurries, two shared run stuffs) was by far the most impactful player up front as the excellent 49ers’ line was able to contain Vince Wilfork (hurry, half stuff) through mostly double-teams. Love watching Ninkovich work over the course of the game because he really sets up the offensive linemen for something different later. That paid off on the huge 13-yard sack with 11:20 left in the game. After bull-rushing left tackle Joe Staley (who stoned just about everyone) most of the game, Ninkovich used a great up-and-under speed rush to take down Kaepernick. Outstanding man coverage down the field by Aqib Talib against Michael Crabtree gave a big assist. Nice recognition by Justin Francis on the next play on the checkdown to Frank Gore. Kyle Love played stout for the most part but he and Brandon Deaderick each had some gap issues against the run. Chandler Jones was caught in no man’s land in this game as mostly a 3-4 end, which is not his strong suit.
Linebackers (Rating: 3 out of 5)
Rookie Dont’a Hightower had his most impactful game since probably the opener against the Titans, but he definitely showed his lack of experience at times with some overaggressive rushes that allowed Kaepernick to escape contain. Brandon Spikes’s play has trended downward while he guts out a right leg injury.
Secondary (Rating: 2.5 out of 5)
Outside of Devin McCourty’s interception (terrible decision by Kaepernick) and Steve Gregory’s forced fumble (could have been ruled an incomplete pass), this group had some issues that can be directly attributed to a poor rush that allowed Kaepernick to have an average of 2.9 seconds to throw (Brady was at 2.4). Talib showed well in this game outside of his 35-yard pass interference penalty. Really nice route recognition when he undercut a third-down pass to Crabtree and forced Kaepernick to throw it away. Gregory continues to be up and down, and we’ll see if Patrick Chung (19 snaps) gets back in the mix. McCourty took the bait on the 34-yard touchdown to Delanie Walker when Kaepernick stared down Randy Moss down the left sideline, which was just a decoy to get the two tight ends, Vernon Davis and Walker, vertical against one cornerback (Alfonzo Dennard). A couple of things would have helped: re-routing of either or both tight ends by Hightower and/or Spikes, and any semblance of a pass rush (3.35 seconds to throw).
Special teams (Rating: 1 out of 5)
On the fake punt — which appeared to be an adjustment, not a call from the sideline — Brandon Bolden got pinched inside, and Marquis Cole lost containment. On the big kickoff return late, there was nothing wrong with the boot by Stephen Gostkowski (4.28 second and 2 yards deep). On the coverage, it appeared that either Niko Koutouvides vacated his lane, or Chung failed to execute a switch with him because of a good block by the 49ers. Zoltan Mesko (4.07 average hangtime) was outpunted by Andy Lee (4.42).
PLAY OF THE GAME
Situation: With the score tied, 31-31, with 6:33 to play, the 49ers had first-and-10 at the New England 38-yard line following a 62-yard kickoff return.
What happened: After scoring 28 consecutive points to tie the score, Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia made the curious decision to call an all-out blitz on first down, perhaps hoping to halt the momentum the 49ers gained on the kickoff. The 49ers easily picked up the blitz, and Colin Kaepernick (7) deftly released the ball in 1.64 seconds to receiver Michael Crabtree (15). At nearly 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds with long arms, Crabtree is a mismatch in the open field against the 5-9, 192-pound Kyle Arrington (24). Players become elite because of their ability to win one-on-one matchups. Crabtree is elite, and he won a battle he should when Arrington failed to make the tackle and Crabtree raced 32 yards after the catch for the game-winning score. You want Arrington to make the play in that situation, but few players can against a talent like Crabtree.
ON HIS GAME
Danny Woodhead, running back
He had a combined 17 touches for 84 tough yards and two touchdowns as he jump-started the Patriots’ offense when it didn’t have anything. Also had two key blitz pickups.
OFF HIS GAME
Shane Vereen, running back
Played two snaps and fumbled his only touch.