Un. Real. Game. Not sure where to start in reviewing the San Francisco 49ers 41-34 upset win over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. There were so many highs and lows for the 49ers, watching the game had a Super Bowl feeling. Not to mention all of the back-and-forth drama with Brady bringing his team back from a 28-point deficit, and Colin Kaepernick emerging on a national stage by throwing four touchdowns and sending a huge statement win to the rest of the NFL. All the talk on who should be starting for the 49ers at quarterback, Alex Smith or Kaepernick, can be put to rest. Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go with Captain Kaep is looking genius right about now.
Kaepernick showed his big-play ability all game, but when it was needed most with the score tied at 31, he showed he can be counted to come through in the clutch despite the circumstances. In game in which he had a 107.7 rating, all in less than ideal weather conditions, the QB needed just one play to answer back to Brady tying the game. After rookie LaMichael James returned a kickoff 62 yards, Kaepernick connected with Michael Crabtree on the next play for a 38-yard, game-winning touchdown pass. The rest was up to the Niners defense, which despite playing horrible most of the second half was able to hold off Brady and his offense on the next two drives.
This game was an instant classic and will go down as one of the best and most exciting regular-season wins in 49ers franchise history. If there were any Niner fans who still had doubts about Kaepernick being the starter, all those doubts should be erased now. Would Alex Smith have made any of the plays Kaepernick did in the game, especially the final game-winning TD throw to Crabtree? Likely not. Let’s hand out some Game Gold Nuggets.
Game Gold Nugget Awards Scale
= VERY GOOD
The Patriots entered the game as heavy favorites with a seven-game winning streak during which the offense averaged 39.1 points and were coming off a huge win over the Texans who had the league’s best record. The big question for the 49ers was can Kaepernick and his offense keep up scoring with Tom Brady if the game becomes a shootout? The answer in the end was a big yes.
Through the first three and a half quarters, the game was more of a blowout than a shootout with the 49ers offense jumping out to a 31-3 led and outgaining the Patriots 308 yards to 162. The game looked over at that point thanks to the 49ers converting two turnovers into touchdowns at the beginning of the second half, all in a span of 17 seconds. Then the Patriots started their comeback.
Early in the game the 49ers had a chance to build on their lead, but failed to score any points despite reaching New England’s 5-, 21- and 25-yard line. The three series ended with a fumble by Delaine Walker, a missed field goal by David Akers and a botched snap by Kaepernick on a 4th-and-inches attempt. Still, the offense somehow managed to enter halftime with a 17-3 lead.
One of the reasons why the Niners offense was so effective was the play of Frank Gore who had 83 rushing yards and 2 receptions for 34 yards. Technically Gore did not have a rushing touchdown even though he ran in for a 9-yard touchdown for a 24-3 lead. On the play, the handoff exchange from Kaepernick to Gore was fumbled, but somehow bounced in the 49ers favor which allowed the running back to scoop it up and run in for the TD, basically untouched. The play almost looked like a planned fumble.
With the offensive line playing brilliantly by only allowing one sack, Kaepernick was able to find his open receivers all game. Crabtree has emerged as Kaep’s favorite target after he caught seven passes for 107 and two touchdowns. Crabtree continues to get better each week with Kaepernick at quarterback. The moves Crabtree made on his game-winning 27-yard touchdown reception showed he is becoming an elite wide receiver in the NFL. He needs 132 receiving yards over the final two games to reach 1,000 receiving yards on the season. The 49ers have not had a 1,000 yard receiver since 2003 when Terrell Owens was with the team. In the last three games, Crabtree has 23 catches for 301 yards and two touchdowns.
The most exciting matchup in the game was the NFL’s No. 1 offense going up against the No. 1 defense. In the end, the Niners defense allowed over 30 points for the first time in 32 regular-season games, but forced four turnovers which proved to be the difference maker. Donte Whitner’s forced fumble and Aldon Smith’s interception in the third quarter led to two touchdowns. With the score 31-3, the Niners looked like they were on their way to an easy upset win over the Patriots.
However, after the two touchdowns Brady went into action and seemed to wear down the 49ers defense that looked like they were running on empty for much of the season half. That’s what the Patriots offense does best, is wear down defenses. Up until New England’s first TD, Brady only had 116 passing yards and a 29.2 passer rating. In the second half, Brady and his offense lit up the Niners for 407 yards, 26 first downs and four touchdowns. In an 18-minute span, New England had four consecutive scoring drives of 78, 68, 28 and 87 yards that tied the game. But the Niners defense stepped up when needed most late in the game by stopping the Patriots on their final two drives.
Aldon Smith did not have a sack but he was a menace for New England’s offensive line and was in Brady’s face all game. After Justin Smith left the game in the fourth quarter with an elbow injury, the Niners pass rush suffered. But the pass rush did its job late in the game with the score 38-31. Ray McDonald and Ricky Jean Francois recorded back-to-back sacks to end the Patriots bid for a comeback on their second to last drive of the game. On the final drive by New England, the 49ers defense forced a turnover on downs that sealed the win.
It is alarming for any defense to give up 520 total yards and 34 points, but when it comes against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense it is an attribute more of New England’s prowess on offense, than any shortcomings from the 49ers defense.
As good as a coach Harbaugh has proven to be over a season and a half it makes you wonder why it took him so long to put LaMichael James on the field, especially on special teams. In his first two games, James is averaging 30.7 yards on seven kickoff returns and none was better than his 62-yard return in the fourth quarter that helped answer back to New England’s string of four touchdown drives. The return swung the momentum back in San Francisco’s favor.
One of the best special teams play this season by the 49ers was the fake punt/direct-snap to Dashon Goldson in the first quarter with them up 7-0. The fake was so good Goldson was able to rush to the left for a 31-yard gain. Unfortunately, it led to a 39-yard missed field goal try by David Akers, his tenth miss of the season. However, Akers did bounce back with field goals made of 20 and 28 yards.
While punter Andy Lee was once again money with a net average of 54 yards and dropping three punts inside the 20, punt returner Ted Ginn struggled. Ginn only averaged 5 yards per punt. He muffed one punt which was recovered and almost had another touch him that looked very reminisce of the fumbled punt in the NFC Championship game.
James on the game changing punt return,
They had all the momentum and I knew it could start with me. When I got the ball in my hands on that kickoff return, I just followed (tight end) Delanie (Walker). I followed him all the way down the field pretty much.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Harbaugh threw out a conservative approach and came out swinging on the offense. On their first drive the offense scored on a six-play, two minute 40-second drive that saw Kaepernick complete 4-of-5 passes for 60 yards, including the 24-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss. As good as the offense played, Harbaugh will need to work on Kaepernick fumbling snaps under center. The rain had a lot to do with the mishaps, but no quarterback should fumble four times in a game. Luckily, all were recovered by the 49ers.
Harbaugh had the 49ers just as aggressive on defense and special teams throughout the game. The fake punt to Goldson sent a shock to the Patriots that they did not recover from until the middle of the third quarter. Harbaugh did go conservative with the 49ers play calling on offense with the team up by 28-points. Most notably on third downs which lead to three-and-outs. But in the end he dialed up the right plays to put the 49ers ahead for good to win the game.