By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The old saying is that there’s no such thing as a moral victory. That may be true, but the Patriots came about as close as possible to earning one on Sunday night.

No, the Patriots never like losing, particularly in December and particularly at home. And yes, the loss was very costly in terms of playoff seeding, as the Patriots no longer control their own fate, needing a Denver loss in the next two weeks in order to have a chance at a bye.

Regardless, coming all the way back from a 31-3 deficit in less than 15 minutes of football proved that the Patriots are never out of any game, because if they can do that against the league’s best defense, they should be able to do it against anyone.

Still, it’s hardly all sunshine and rainbows after the 41-34 loss, so here are the four ups and four downs from the game.

Four Ups

Danny Woodhead
With  Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen struggling to hold on to the football, the Patriots went with a heavy dose of the always-reliable Danny Woodhead for the bulk of the action in the backfield. Woodhead made it worthwhile, too, by being a major contributor during that incredible comeback.

Woodhead was the Patriots’ leading rusher with 61 yards, twice finding the end zone. It was Woodhead who scored that game-tying touchdown, and it was Woodhead who helped spark that comeback by moving the chains three times before scoring the Patriots’ first touchdown early in the third quarter.

After a fumble last week that was recovered by teammate Brandon Lloyd, Woodhead showed he’s still a prime-time player.

Brandon Lloyd
Overall, Brandon Lloyd’s grade on the season would probably be a solid B — very good, nothing spectacular — but Monday night’s showing could change that.

The receiver finished the night with 10 catches for 190 yards, 21 more yards than his previous single game career high of 169. It was about timing just as much as it was the final stats, though, as Lloyd came up huge several times in the second half to keep the Patriots in the game.

With the Patriots trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Lloyd blew past Chris Culliver along the right sideline and caught a perfectly thrown pass from Brady. Lloyd, not known for getting too many yards after the catch, burst down the field for a gain of 53 yards. Lloyd also caught the 24-yard pass on fourth down that allowed for Stephen Gostkowksi to kick the field goal that closed the gap to just one score in the final minute of the game.

Though the 100-plus-yard performance came in a loss (as have 12 of Lloyd’s 14 100-yard outings), it was at least a positive sign for the Patriots’ offense that Lloyd can come through in major times of need.

Brandon Spikes/Rob Ninkovich
These two linebackers can share the spotlight here for coming through with huge plays that allowed for Brady and the offense to climb back into it. Ninkovich’s came on a second-and-9 on the San Francisco 29-yard line with the 49ers leading 31-24. Colin Kaepernick, who had proven to be elusive to that point in the game, spun and rolled to his left, expecting to break free from the pursuit of Ninkovich, but Ninkovich had seen enough at that point, sticking with the slippery quarterback and bringing him down to the turf for a loss of 13 yards. The ensuing third-and-22 proved too much for the Niners to convert, and they were forced to punt it back to New England.

Spikes didn’t start the game and was limited by knee and ankle injuries, but he looked just fine chasing down Frank Gore with less than 5 minutes to go and the Patriots trailing 38-31 and desperately needing the ball back. Spikes tracked down Gore from the opposite side of the field to limit the gain to just two yards on first down, and on second down, he forced LaMichael James back inside, where Jerod Mayo was waiting to bring him down short of the first down.

Ultimately in a loss, plays like that can be forgotten, but without them, that entire game would not have been nearly as memorable as it was.

Tom Brady
The quarterback earns this spot over Hernandez (10 receptions, 92 yards, TD) because the tight end bobbled a pass from Brady that ended up in the hands of Aldon Smith. Brady did throw an interception of his own, but when you finish the night with 443 yards against the NFL’s No. 2 defense in terms of yards allowed, you get some accolades by night’s end.

The yardage total was the second-highest of Brady’s career, but beyond that, it was clear from watching the game that Brady was simply unwilling to go quietly. He was on the sidelines in his teammates’ ears early on when the offense couldn’t get anything going, and  despite his temper tantrum on referee Ed Hochuli, he calmly led the offense on that memorable comeback (which would have been much more memorable if not for the 62-yard kick return and 38-yard touchdown that immediately followed).

He may not win the MVP this year, because it’s impossible to predict what criteria the voters will use. Regardless of the outcome though, Brady displayed Sunday night why he’s worthy of the award. There just aren’t many men in the league who could lead a comeback like that one.

Four Downs

Stevan Ridley
Last week, Ridley fumbled inside the 5-yard line but was bailed out by Aaron Hernandez. This week, Ridley wasn’t so lucky. The potential for fumbling issues reared its ugly head on the second play of the game, though Ridley’s fumble was overturned by video review after it showed he was down before the ball popped loose.

The problem was averted, but only temporarily, as Ridley didn’t protect the ball as Donte Whitner put his helmet right on the football to knock it free from Ridley’s grasp on the Patriots’ initial drive of the third quarter. The fumble was returned all the way to the Patriots’ 6-yard line, and the Niners were in the end zone one play later, leading 24-3.

Ridley lost his job as the primary running back last December and January, when he fumbled out of bounds in Week 17 (a fortunate bounce) and turned it over in the divisional round against Denver, when he wasn’t as lucky. This year, he’s had a similar two-week showing, and it’ll be interesting to see how his role changes in the final two weeks and the playoffs if the Patriots are once again worried about his fumbling.

Punt Return Team
You hear coaches like Bill Belichick say all the time that there are three phases to the game, and Sunday night proved that it’s not just a saying. Special teams is indeed an important factor in determining the outcomes of football games, and the Patriots’ punt return unit proved pivotal in this one, and not in a way Belichick would have hoped. The 49ers punted just five times, and three of them resulted in holding calls on New England.

In the first quarter, an 18-yard Wes Welker return was wiped out due to holding, costing the Patriots 28 yards. The following play was a deep ball to Welker, which was intercepted.

In the fourth quarter, a 10-yard Welker return was negated due to to holding, costing the Patriots 17 yards and forcing them to begin their drive at their own 8-yard line. They did prove to overcome that obstacle, though, by driving 92 yards in 3:13 to tie the game.

But later, they weren’t so fortunate, as yet another holding penalty on a punt return changed that final Patriots possession from beginning on their own 18-yard line to their own 3-yard line. That’s quite the difference, and despite that comeback, even the Patriots offense couldn’t climb out of that hole in the game’s final minutes.

Offensive Line
This unit has found its way into the “Ups” section far more often than the “Downs,” and the work of Dante Scarnecchia to make things work despite nagging injuries throughout the line has been deservedly praised.

Yet on this night, facing the toughest test of the season, the offensive line came up a bit short. Of course, there’s no shame in that, considering the NFL’s leader in sacks, Aldon Smith, didn’t add to his total of 19.5. However, the offensive line did surrender three sacks, two on consecutive plays midway through the fourth quarter after the Niners took a 38-31 lead, forcing a Patriots punt and fully halting any momentum the Patriots had going for them.

Smith was also a menace in the first half, getting in his fair share of hits on Brady, even though he didn’t record a sack.

The meeting of these two teams was a strength vs. strength matchup in almost every category, and in terms of how the trench matchup played out, the Niners earned the check mark.

Kyle Arrington
The cornerback had a solid performance against the Texans, looking very much like his 2011 self, but he was left all alone on an island on Sunday night. It proved to be a lonely position.

Following the 62-yard kick return in the 31-31 game in the fourth quarter, Arrington was in single coverage outside against Michael Crabtree. The receiver ran a comeback and caught the ball at the Patriots’ 32-yard line. Arrington overpursued toward Crabtree and couldn’t grab a hold of the receiver, leaving open the entire left side of the field for Crabtree to waltz through for the easy score. In a matter of seconds, the celebration inside Gillette Stadium was canceled, and the Patriots, after scoring 28 unanswered points to tie the game, were once again trailing.

It’s wrong to blame Arrington solely for that play, but the overagressive angle to the ball carrier allowed what proved to be the game-winning points to be put on the board.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter@michaelFhurley.

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