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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots almost pulled off a rain-soaked comeback for the ages on Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers, running a dramatic reverse play after their high-powered offensive attack had been shut down for the first 35 minutes of the game.
Down 31-3 with 10:21 remaining in the third quarter, they charged back to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 to play, putting themselves in position for what would have been one of the most dramatic regular-season wins in recent memory.
But afterward, in a quiet Patriots locker room, veteran receiver Deion Branch was reluctant to even use the word "comeback."
"You can't really call it that," he said, "because we didn't come back and win. We did enough to make the game interesting and to give ourselves a chance."
That the Patriots were even in that position was remarkable considering how ineffective the offense had played in turning the ball over four times in the first 35 minutes -- two Tom Brady interceptions and fumbles by running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen -- after totaling just 10 turnovers in the first 13 games of the season. They also were 0-for-7 on third down in the first half.
As Branch said, "That's just not us," so when looking for reasons as to how the Patriots made their second-half charge, start there.
"It wasn't like there was a magic formula to what we were doing, we just stopped killing ourselves," said Brady, who finished with a career-high 65 pass attempts, which is the second highest total in team history (Drew Bledsoe had 70 against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 13, 1994). His 443 yards passing marked the fourth time he eclipsed the 400-yard plateau.
"We just can't turn the ball over; we can't miss plays that we have opportunities at. We hit a few of those and that's why we moved the ball."
The Patriots threw it 46 times in the second half, with 12 running plays. In terms of personnel, the only dramatic shift from the first half was running back Danny Woodhead playing every second-half snap but five. Some of that was based on the dire situation as Woodhead often stays on the field in obvious passing situations, and part of it also was tied to the fumbles by Ridley (one snap played after his fumble) and Vereen (no snaps after his fumble).
|Danny Woodhead, Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense didn't pack it in while trailing 31-3.|
But other than that significant switch, the Patriots were playing with the same personnel in the second half that they were in the first. They mixed things up mostly between their three- and two-receiver packages, while sometimes showing a three-tight-end formation.
Going with the empty set, in part out of necessity, helped provide a spark. Brady was the lone player in the backfield on 26 plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, and 19 of those came in the second half. He was 15-of-24 with a touchdown out of the empty set, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt.
When the Patriots weren't in empty, Brady completed just 51.2 percent of his throws, with two interceptions, for an average of 5.7 yards per attempt.
It's hard to go empty when facing a tough pass rush, but the offensive line seemed to settle in by the second half to give Brady more time against the 49ers' potent rush.
"I think we had them figured out a little better, what was going on. We were able to make the adjustments and get them blocked better, their pressures and stunts," veteran left guard Logan Mankins of the team's second-half turnaround.
It helped that the 49ers seemed to take their foot off the accelerator to leave the Patriots an opening to develop a rhythm, even though coach Jim Harbaugh disagreed that was the case. Harbaugh credited the Patriots with hitting more intermediate routes, while linebacker NaVorro Bowman said New England's quick passing game started to find its groove.
As the rally was unfolding, the Patriots put themselves in position to break the streak of 242 games in which teams lost when they trailed by 21 or more points in the fourth quarter.
"That was unbelievable, but that is what you get when you play Tom Brady," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "That offense can score points in bunches. Give credit to them because they played hard the whole game and didn't give up."
"It was Tom Brady-like; there's nobody else to compare it to," Harbaugh said.
That was the silver lining for the Patriots, how they showed the mental toughness to make their charge. Even down 31-3, Brady said he still believed there was a chance at victory.
"We didn't come back [and win], but we fought back," Mankins said, noting the difference with how the Patriots kept top players on the field after the Houston Texans had pulled their starters in a similar situation against the Patriots last Monday. "We knew there was a lot of time left and we could score. We got back into the game but couldn't finish it out."
Third downs ultimately hurt the Patriots. Entering the day as the NFL's best third-down offense, converting 52.5 percent of the time, they were just 2-of-15 in the game and held to a total of minus-1 yard on seven first-half attempts.
After tying the game 31-31 in the fourth quarter, those problems resurfaced on the final two drives. So while the Patriots' offense took a sharp U-turn in the second half, it ultimately wound up in the same place it started the night.
"We had to pretty much put together a perfect second half and we did up until those last two drives," said Branch, who was the No. 3 receiver and played 53 snaps. "We showed a lot of mental toughness and we knew we had that. In the second half, we came out and made some plays but it was too late."
It was an impressive charge, a dramatic reversal from a horrific 35 minutes. Entertaining, too.
The Patriots' offense had never looked so bad, and so good, in the same game.