What it means. The Patriots fall to 10-4 and drop to the third seed in the AFC playoffs, as their hopes of a first-round playoff bye take a major hit. They now look up at the Texans (12-2) and the Broncos (11-3). The Patriots have remaining games at Jacksonville (Dec. 23) and at home against the Dolphins (Dec. 30). The Texans have a home game against the Vikings before closing on the road against the Colts. The Broncos host the Browns and Chiefs. Meanwhile, the 49ers improve to 10-3-1 and gain respect in the process.
Summing up what happened -– a comeback falls short. The Patriots trailed 31-3 with 10:21 remaining in the third quarter and it looked like a blowout. But they made a spirited comeback to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 left, and a rain-soaked Gillette Stadium was rocking. But a 62-yard kickoff return by LaMichael James, followed by a 38-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Michael Crabtree on which cornerback Kyle Arrington missed a tackle helped the 49ers re-establish momentum. In a wild game played in heavy rain, that was the key sequence. NFL teams have lost 242 straight games when trailing by 21 or more points in the fourth quarter and the Patriots almost broke that streak.
Turnovers hurt Patriots. Entering the game with an NFL-best plus-24 turnover differential, the Patriots have thrived in that area. They were uncharacteristically careless with the football, with Tom Brady throwing a first-quarter interception into tight coverage, and running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen also fumbled. That put the Patriots in an early hole. The Patriots entered the game with just 10 turnovers but had four in the game (two Brady interceptions, fumbles by Ridley and Vereen).
Credit to the 49ers. The Patriots have the best regular-season home record in the NFL since 2002, at 72-14. So for the 49ers to come here and play the way they did, they deserve a tremendous amount of credit. Their defense controlled the first half, and the offense hurt the Patriots with a combination of the running game and the big passing play. The performance also included receiver Randy Moss hurting his former team with a 24-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter that opened the scoring and helped the 49ers avoid the early hole that often leads to opponents crumbling in that situation against the high-powered Patriots.
Injuries to monitor. Starting right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard left the game in the second quarter with a right knee injury and did not return. Also, reserve linebacker Mike Rivera left in the second half with an ankle injury and did not return.
Brady’s streak of passing TDs extends to 46. Quarterback Tom Brady had been held without a touchdown pass through the first three quarters, and his streak of games with at least one touchdown pass was in jeopardy. But Brady found tight end Aaron Hernandez for a 5-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to extend the streak to 46 games, the third longest streak all-time behind Johnny Unitas (47) and Drew Brees (54).
Welker sets NFL record for 100-catch seasons. Patriots receiver Wes Welker became the first player in NFL history to record five 100-catch seasons. He had to earn it, as the 49ers held him without a catch in the first half. Welker set the mark midway through the fourth quarter.
What’s next. The Patriots travel to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars on Sunday, Dec. 23. The 49ers visit the Seahawks that day.