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BOSTON (CBS) — What took place at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night was a truly incredible spectacle for all of us who were lucky enough to be watching. The game featured two of the league’s premier teams and promised to be a captivating contest, and though for a brief while it appeared to be a one-sided blowout, it lived up to all the hype.
Yet while people can (and will) spend hours upon hours breaking down everything that happened in the 60 crazy minutes in Foxboro, from the massive momentum swings to the debates about an attempted fourth-down conversion, the final outcome was really decided by two simple factors: turnovers and special teams.
It’s well-known that the Patriots’ defense, for all its faults, makes up for most of its deficiencies by forcing turnovers. The Patriots’ plus-24 turnover differential was far and away best in the league heading into the game, and that unique ability for forcing turnovers led directly to at least three of their 10 wins. And their 10 giveaways — fewest in the NFL — played into that just the same.
But whether it was due to the rain or just mental mistakes, the Patriots lost the turnover battle against the 49ers, coughing up two fumbles (one by Stevan Ridley, another by Shane Vereen) and two interceptions (one a forced throw into double coverage by Tom Brady, the other a bobbled pass by Aaron Hernandez). The Niners, in their three losses, lost the turnover battle 7-2, but they won on Sunday night 4-2, and it made all the difference.
The Patriots also failed badly on special teams, an area that can very rarely win games but can easily lose them. Three times the Patriots were penalized for holding on a San Francisco punt. The first penalty erased 28 yards of field possession, the second cost 17 yards and the third cost them 15 yards.
The first holding call was followed with a Brady interception on a deep pass, the second forced the Patriots to start from their own 8-yard line, and the third forced them to start from their own 3-yard line, needing 97 yards to tie the game.
A lot happened over the course of the game, but you eliminate some of those turnovers, and you simply refrain from holding on punt returns, and you make the task a lot easier for yourself. The Patriots didn’t, and they’re now on the outside looking in at a first-round playoff bye.
Despite that, there’s plenty to feel good about in New England, so let’s get into all the leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ loss to the 49ers.
–I’ll start with what I fear will be the overblown topic of the week: Bill Belichick letting his offense attempt a fourth-and-1 from their own 12 with 2:24 left on the game clock. It was absolutely a pivotal call and it without question led directly to the team losing, but it didn’t cost the Patriots a victory and it wasn’t at all similar to the infamous fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis in 2009.
Had the Patriots punted instead, their best-case scenario would have been stopping San Fran, using two timeouts and the two-minute warning, forcing a punt and then driving the length of the field with no timeouts to tie the game. Possible? Sure, of course, but any number of events could have changed those plans. One 49ers first down wins the game for San Francisco, and driving the entire field against the Niners’ defense is hardly an easy task, regardless of the previous scoring drives.
So yes, it’s fair to disagree with the decision (I personally would’ve punted, if only to postpone losing for a couple of minutes), but to bash Belichick for that decision? Save it. In going for it on fourth down, they probably had at best a 20 percent chance of winning. By punting it away, it wouldn’t have been any better. Essentially, you can agree with the call or disagree with the call, but one side is not any more valid than the other.
–Now the play call and execution, on the other hand? That stunk. Danny Woodhead is a lot of things, but he’s not a wide receiver.
–I’m so over Ed Hochuli, it’s not even funny. Back in ’04, he was “that ref with the big arms.” Then there was a Sports Illustrated feature on him, and then he became a national celebrity because of, again, his big arms and his habit of using 10 words when one would suffice. But now, after he became a full-on fan favorite during the brief replacement ref era, I’m tired of the guy — and that’s how I felt before that fiasco on the Patriots’ punt that caused a delay of more than 10 minutes. He just feels required to explain things we already know, like that the quarterback’s arm was moving forward and that it was ruled a forward pass instead of a fumble. We know that, Ed. We’ve watched the sport before. No other ref would speak in that moment.
It’s high time Roger Goodell hires a microphone babysitter to control when Hochuli is allowed to speak and for how long.
–Even though there was a lot to like from the Patriots’ comeback effort, there will be plenty of Patriots fans complaining about this one. It’s inevitable. If you’re one of them, before you complain too much I’d advise you to remember that the Patriots haven’t lost a home game in December since Chad Pennington and Curtis Martin of the Jets beat them 30-17 … in 2002. That’s a fairly decent run, you know?
–I thought I was a regular old comedian when I tweeted it was appropriate for Danny Woodhead to be the best Patriots player on the opening weekend of The Hobbit. I was disappointed to see a quick Twitter search showed 10 million Tom, Dick and Harriets (I’m gender-neutral here in the Leftover Thoughts) made the same observation. I swear, mine was the funniest.
–Cris Collinsworth is my favorite color commentator in the game. He’s not perfect, but talking on live TV during a football game is a tough job, and he’s just better at watching and immediately interpreting plays, and he’s generally dead on. That was true at 10:06 of the third quarter, when he said:
“I really did not think that anybody, including the 49ers as good as they are, could come out and play man coverage across the board and win every battle. They’re winning every battle out here tonight. There’s just no doubt about it.”
He was precisely right at the time, but it’s almost as if Bill Belichick found a way to broadcast that message to his players on the sideline. From that point forward, the Patriots outscored the Niners 31-10.
–Let’s play everybody’s favorite game: Good Josh, Bad Josh!
Facing a fourth-and-2 at their own 42, the Patriots went for it. I don’t know whether Josh McDaniels called the specific play, called several plays and left the final decision up to Brady, or if he left the whole thing up to Brady, but he deserves credit regardless for what was a brilliant play. Brady made several calls on the line before taking the snap from under center, faking a handoff to Woodhead on a stretch play then turning and lobbing a pass to Welker, who was all alone in the flat and ran for a gain of 15 yards. Good Josh!
It’s hard to blame Tom Brady for his second interception because it bounced out of Aaron Hernandez’s hands and into those of Aldon Smith. However it’s equally as difficult to blame Hernandez, because it was not Hernandez who called a quick pass to himself just one play after this happened:
Forgive the guy if he was a little dazed. Bad Josh!
–By the way, great job by Dashon Goldson to celebrate as if he just won the Super Bowl when in fact he just broke the rules and cost his team 15 yards:
Even Brandon Meriweather had to cringe seeing that.
–Wes Welker had an “off night” by his standards, finishing with five catches for 56 yards, but he also made history. He became the first NFL player to ever catch 100 or more passes in five straight seasons. Welker has also had at least one catch in every single football game he’s played since Christmas Eve of 2005, which isn’t historic but is pretty impressive nonetheless.
On the season, Welker has 100 receptions for 1,172 yards. He’s on pace to finish with 114 catches and 1,339 yards, which would be three more receptions and 118 more yards than his average from 2007-11.
(This is where I’d throw in a jab of some sort to insult you if you thought the Patriots were “phasing out” Welker after his three-catch, 14-yard performance in Week 1, but I’m totally above that. Like, so far above that, it’s not even funny.)
–There are two hypothetical scenarios that might help you out in dealing with a loss like that. For one, just about everyone who looked at the schedule in the preseason and throughout the year predicted at least one loss in the back-to-back weeks against Houston and San Francisco. If you were offered the scenario of guaranteeing a 1-1 record in those games, you’d probably take it.
And if you told anyone in New England early in the season when the Patriots were 1-2 or 3-3 that heading into Week 16 they’d be in position to finish 12-4, they’d happily accept that deal.
–Also, going 3-1 and averaging 37 points per game without Rob Gronkowski? You’d have to take that, too.
–You can cut Deion Branch as many times as your heart desires, but he’s still going to go out on Sundays, make plays and move the chains. The veteran wideout was targeted five times, and he caught four of them. Three of those catches resulted in first downs, and two came on fourth downs. There will always be faster, taller, stronger and healthier receivers than Branch, but there may not be anyone more reliable.
–I hope that four passing touchdowns and a 19-yard run by Kaepernick finally will stop knuckleheads from trying to convince me that Alex Smith is somehow good at football. It’s not risky to bench Smith and it never was, because Smith stinks. Kaepernick’s only weaknesses were fumbling snaps and complaining to the ref for getting hit when he was pretending to carry the football. Smith’s weaknesses are too many to fit on the Internet, yet because his name still sits among the league leaders in completion percentage, people have been yapping that he’s a good quarterback. He’s not, and Kaepernick is the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Let’s all agree to accept that now.
–That being said, the kid ought to work on taking some snaps under center. It’s kind of an important element to playing that position. Rain or no rain, four fumbles is a bit ridiculous.
–How about Randy Moss, by the way? Two years ago, he looked so far beyond washed up that he couldn’t even earn playing time for the 6-10 Titans, and he spent the 2011 season in West Virginia doing Randy Moss things. Though he only made two grabs Sunday night, he showed his shoulders can still support the erf by holding onto a ball while Jerod Mayo cleaned his clock and then getting past the defense for the Niners’ first touchdown of the evening.
–I thought the defensive pass interference call on Aqib Talib was a bad call because even though Talib wasn’t looking at the ball, there was hardly any contact between him and Michael Crabtree. I also thought the PI call on Tarrell Brown was Tarr-ible (Ha!) because it looked as though Brandon Lloyd simply tripped over his own feet. So those canceled each other out in my book.
What I was excited to see was an official make the signal for an uncatchable ball. I’ve been complaining about this for more than a year, that somewhere over the past few years, officials forgot what “uncatchable” meant and would penalize defenders for pass interference even if the ball sailed nearly into the stands, as it did for Lloyd earlier in the season, or 10 yards over the receiver’s head, as it did with Welker last week. This week, however, the “uncatchable” call returned in glorious fashion.
–Speaking of glorious, it’s OK to admit that those 18 seconds when the game was tied was your favorite part of the season.
–Big Vince Wilfork doesn’t get as much attention as Tom Brady because the former doesn’t throw as many touchdowns as the latter, but Skinny Vinny showed off his cannon in a pregame segment with Bob Costas. It wasn’t exactly a perfect spiral, but Vince launched a 57-yard pass on the Gillette Stadium turf. Find me another man who weighs 325 pounds who can do that, and I’ll give you a shiny new dollar.
–Wilfork was his usual self in this one, even though his stat line of just three tackles doesn’t tell you that at all. My favorite play came early in the fourth quarter, when he bullied Anthony Davis three yards backward into the backfield:
Wilfork then extended his right arm and stopped a charging Frank Gore at full speed:
Gore gained just two yards, bring up a third-and-4, which the Niners didn’t convert. The best part of all was Wilfork shown on the replay just casually walking away after Brandon Deaderick finished off the tackle.
Statistically, Wilfork gets nothing on that play, but it doesn’t take a football genius to see how much he impacts almost every snap.
–Nobody, not even Colin Kaepernick’s family and best friends, would have expected the San Francisco offense to put 41 points on the board. So how’d that happen? It was somewhat similar to the Patriots’ loss to the Cardinals, when Arizona kicked a field goal after a 7-yard drive and scored a touchdown on a 2-yard drive.
On Sunday night, the 49ers had three short touchdown drives that lasted 6 seconds, 8 seconds and 1:32. So if you were left feeling confused as to what exactly happened, that should help explain how things got out of hand.
–The Tom Brady quarterback sneak remains 100 percent effective when the Patriots need a yard*. If I’m an opposing coach and I don’t stack nine guys on the center’s nose on fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-goal from the 1, I’m taking off my headset and forcing myself to run a lap around the stadium. It’s just unacceptable at this point.
*It should be about 98 percent, but thanks to Rex Ryan illegally calling a timeout in Baltimore in ’07, it remains perfect.
–The loss hurt the Patriots in the standings, so barring a miraculous Chiefs or Browns victory in Denver over the next two weeks, the Patriots will need to win three playoff games in order to make it to New Orleans. Tom Brady’s never done that before, with the Patriots losing in the divisional round in ’05, the AFC Championship Game in ’06 and the wild-card round in ’09. That, I guess, is the bad news.
But the good news? For one, nobody in the AFC looks unbeatable, whether at home or on the road. A trip to Houston or Denver will be tough, but the Patriots already have convincing wins in their back pocket against both teams. And while a bye is always necessary for a team to rest up after a grueling season, a wild-card weekend matchup at home against a team like the Bengals or, if the comedy gods play along, the Jets won’t exactly present a massive roadblock for New England.
And above all, the Patriots have the confidence that whether they’re facing a last-place team like Buffalo or perhaps the NFL’s best team in San Francisco, they’re never out of any game — not with that quarterback and that offense. Wins are nice, but the Patriots have proven capable of learning a whole lot more in in tough losses. In that weird way, if this group does earn itself a trip to New Orleans, you can point to the night of Dec. 16 as the point when they learned what it takes to get there.
Screen shots courtesy of NFL.com/GameRewind.