Commentary

Patriots' problems come at bad time

A week after looking like world-beaters, Tom Brady & Co. can't overcome mistakes

Updated: December 28, 2012, 2:36 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As the New England Patriots systematically scratched their way back from the unthinkable -- a 28-point fourth-quarter deficit at home against the San Francisco 49ers and their young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who was in the midst of his fifth career NFL start -- the mathematical football wizards came up with a stat that did not fall into the "small sample" category.

There were 242 teams in league history that had trailed in the fourth quarter by 21 points or more.

Only one of them emerged victorious.

That number didn't change Sunday night.

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Tom Brady nearly dragged his team out of one of the Patriots' most calamitous spells in his long and illustrious career here, but even he couldn't completely overcome a 31-3 deficit. His late-game offensive barrage added to his legend and enabled New England to tie the game 31-31, but poor coverage on the ensuing kickoff; a blitz that resulted in Kyle Arrington in one-on-one coverage on San Francisco's top receiver, Michael Crabtree (who ran a hitch and juked past Arrington for a touchdown); and a penalty on the ensuing kickoff that pinned the Patriots at their own 3-yard line all contributed to the "too little, too late" outcome for the home team.

It was a familiar refrain throughout a raw, cold, rainy night, the kind of weather Patriots teams have long claimed favored them. In fact, shortly before kickoff, while the Niners donned red rain jackets and huddled near a sideline heater, none of New England's players wore coats, and many proudly displayed short sleeves and bare arms.

So how did that work out? Two fumbles (one each by running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley), two interceptions by Brady and eight penalties for 73 yards later, it was hard to imagine how this game could have possibly been salvaged.

"The way we played, we can't beat anybody," Vince Wilfork said.

New England shuffled out of Gillette Stadium having not only lost its grip on a 41-34 defeat, but also on the chance to strengthen its hold on the No. 2 seed in the AFC East.

If the Houston Texans win at least one of their final two games (against the Minnesota Vikings and the Indianapolis Colts), they will be the No. 1 seed. If the Denver Broncos win their final two games (against two weak opponents, the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs), they will be the No. 2 seed. New England needs to win out and have either Houston lose two or Denver lose at least one to grab the No. 2 seed and secure a first-round bye.

While some players acknowledged the significance of the loss, most were not particularly interested in discussing their postseason fortunes.

"The seeding is going to play out how it plays out," safety Steve Gregory said. "What's a lot more disappointing is this loss after a hard week of preparation."

While the Patriots' defense has been the team's biggest question mark through most of the season, the offense was its security blanket. Just six days earlier, New England put up 42 points against a highly rated Texans defense. Brady threw for four touchdowns and had started to emerge as the presumptive leader in the MVP race. Suddenly, the Patriots were being touted as the team that could not be stopped.

The first half of Sunday night's game all but obliterated that good karma. The utter lack of offensive continuity was evident from the start, a credit to the 49ers' lively defense that successfully pressured Brady and pounded New England's running game with a physicality that has been unmatched this season.

And then there were the fumbles. On New England's first series of the game, Ridley fell on his back and the ball squirted free, but he was ruled down. The Patriots may have felt fortunate to keep possession, but the drive still translated into a three-and-out.

[+] EnlargeMichael Crabtree
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMichael Crabtree left Kyle Arrington and the Patriots in his wake with a momentum-changing touchdown.

On the next series, Brady and the boys made it to midfield before they stalled out. And, the next time they got the ball, Brady forced a pass to Wes Welker downfield and was picked off by Carlos Rogers.

"We just never gave ourselves a chance," Brady lamented Brady, who was picked off twice for the first time since the Patriots' last loss (Week 6 at Seattle). "I mean, they're a very good team and a very good defense, but we just spotted them 28 points."

In spite of New England's first-quarter follies, the Patriots trailed only 7-3 midway through the second quarter, in part because the 49ers missed a field goal and fumbled the ball away themselves.

The weather contributed to the sloppy play, but, as Ridley correctly assessed, the field and the ball were equally slick for both sides.

"There were a lot of balls out there to be had," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "We just couldn't get our hands on them. We've been so good about forcing turnovers. That was one of the more frustrating things."

You want frustrating? Consider this sequence: Ridley breaks free on a 9-yard scamper, then coughs up the ball when Donte Whitner bludgeons him. San Francisco's Dashon Goldson scoops up the ball, returns it 66 yards, and suddenly the Niners have a first-and-goal from the Patriots' 3.

So what happens? Kaepernick fumbles the snap (one of four he mishandled on the night) and the ball pops free. Running back Frank Gore alertly grabs it and lumbers into the end zone for a touchdown.

Ridley's miscue landed him a spot on the sideline next to the heater. He took only one more snap the rest of the game.

"Well, you can make excuses or man up and say, 'We messed up,"' Ridley said. "And that's what we did today -- what I did today.

"We'll be back to work tomorrow. That's the only way Coach knows how to do it, that's the only way we know how to do it."

This is how it goes in the NFL. One week you are the team everyone is picking for the Super Bowl and your quarterback is being lauded as one for the ages.

Then, six days later, questions again arise about your secondary, about your running backs, even about your coach, who, down 38-31, decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 12-yard line with 2:24 left in the game rather than punt it and try for a defensive stop to retrieve the ball for one final drive.

Brady's pass out of the shotgun to Danny Woodhead was incomplete, and the Niners took over on downs. Twenty seconds later, they kicked a field goal to pad their lead to 41-31. Asked how much he debated whether to go for it on fourth down with two timeouts in hand and the two-minute warning left, Bill Belichick simply replied, "None."

There will be enough second-guessing to go around on a number of fronts. How, after coming all the way back from down 31-3 to tie it, did New England's special-teams unit allow LaMichael James to run back a 62-yard kickoff return?

Arrington, whose team was in a seven-man blitz package when Kaepernick alertly found Crabtree, admitted he will see the San Francisco receiver cruise past him into the end zone in his sleep.

"I've got to make that tackle," Arrington said quietly. "It's a routine play any other time. Hats off. He made the play, I didn't.

"This one a hard pill to swallow. I'm anxious to get back to work this week and move on."

The Patriots have Jacksonville and Miami left on the docket. Had they taken care of business at home against a talented young quarterback on a dreary night in Foxborough, they'd be angling for the No. 2 seed and the comfort of knowing they wouldn't have to leave home for most of the postseason.

But that's over now. So is that incredible streak of not losing a game in the second half of the season since January 2010.

In the quiet of the Patriots' locker room, defensive captain Wilfork preached consistency. In the quiet of the interview room, offensive captain Brady preached mental toughness.

"Let's find out who we are," Wilfork said.

He paused for a moment.

"I know who we are," he said. "We're grinders."

Just like that, life suddenly got tougher for the grinders -- and the prolific offense that somehow temporarily came untracked at the worst possible time.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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