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New England was due for a dose of humility, so maybe it was best that it came in this form. The San Francisco 49ers came into Foxborough on Sunday and beat the Patriots at their own game. The 49ers forced turnovers. They scored. And they beat the Patriots up.
And so just like that, the Patriots went from pursuers of the No. 1 seed in the AFC to possessors of No. 3, to the team that would host the Cincinnati Bengals on wild card weekend if the playoffs opened this week. New England showed grit and resolve in this game, to be sure, but the simple truth is that the Patriots never led against a 49ers team that is - and can we all agree on this now? - a certified, bona fide Super Bowl threat.
No ifs, ands or buts. No excuses. No whining. The Niners just came in here and poked an array of holes in what seemed an air of invincibility following the Patriots' convincing win over the Houston Texans, and the only question now is whether the Patriots will be better off for it.
Despite the final score of this game, let the record show that the Niners used a familiar formula to unseat the Patriots: good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed defense. The Patriots went 2-for-13 on third down in this game, both conversions coming during an early third-quarter drive after the Niners had built a 31-3 lead that should have been even bigger. The Patriots started moving the ball in this game only after the Niners backed off some, and then the Patriots got on a roll that nearly made for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.
In the end, the Patriots got what they deserved in this game, if only because a team cannot expect to play 20 minutes of a 60-minute game and win against elite competition.
Now, does this mean the Patriots are cooked, that they are incapable of winning three games to reach the sixth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady Era? Of course not. It just means the road got longer and tougher. It means the Patriots still have some work to do in their secondary. And it means the Patriots still have some young players who are unknowns when it comes to playing the biggest games on the grandest stages against the toughest competition.
Stevan Ridley has fumbled in each of the last two games, after all, and he fumbled in the divisional playoffs against Denver last year. (He now has four fumbles this season.) Shane Vereen also fumbled in this game. Nate Solder was schooled by Aldon Smith in the earliest stages of play and allowed a huge sack late, and the New England secondary took a step back, Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick exploiting the safety play of Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty.
Whatever weaknesses the Patriots have possessed this season, the Niners seemingly took advantage of them. Which brings us to another issue, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, who showed no trepidation in taking on the great Belichick, faking a punt on fourth-and-10 from his own 41-yard line when it was just a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
How's that for gumption?
For the Patriots, the end result was a 1-3 record against the NFC West this season, with losses to Arizona, Seattle, and San Francisco, all of whom beat the Patriots up at the line of scrimmage and effectively contained the New England passing attack. And this game, unlike the others, was played on a cold, wet, and wintry New England night, the kind of conditions that are supposed to favor weathered New Englanders, not their visitors from the Bay Area.
The good news in all of this? There aren't many teams out there like the Niners, whom the Patriots would love to see again in the Super Bowl, if New England can get that far. And the Patriots still can. Though the Texans and surging Denver Broncos now stand ahead of the Patriots in the AFC hierarchy, New England has already defeated both teams, albeit on the home turf of Foxborough. Neither the Denver nor the Houston defense showed the real capacity to do to the Patriots what the Niners did, and there certainly is no one to fear in the AFC.
Over the coming weeks, then, the challenges for Belichick and the Patriots are obvious. Assuming that cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is fine, the Patriots need to continue improving in a secondary that already has made some strides. Offensively, a healthy Rob Gronkowski wouldn't hurt. With the exception of Wes Welker, New England receivers are more finesse than power - Welker is deceptively tough - though that changes dramatically when Gronkowski is on the field.
Months ago, when the New England schedule was released, the consecutive games against Houston and San Francisco clearly stood out as the gauntlet. The chances of making it through both unscathed seemed relatively slim. And yet, the Patriots had that chance when a Danny Woodhead touchdown run tied the score at 31-31 with 6:45 to play, even if the opportunity evaporated in a matter of seconds.
At that instant, the Patriots' chances of a first-round bye have similarly disappeared.
But their chances of going to the Super Bowl did not.
Tony's Top 5
Best offseason moves in recent Red Sox history
Signing Johnny Damon From 2002-05, Damon averaged 149 games, 16 home runs, 115 runs and 25 steals. His OPS was .803. Rock solid.
Trading for Curt Schilling The piece that put the Red Sox over the top in 2004. Most guys go to New York to win titles. Schilling came here.
Signing David Ortiz In 10 years, he's hit more homers than anybody but Albert Pujols, Adam Dunn or Alex Rodriguez. Jackpot.
Signing Manny Ramirez Find another $100 million free agent contract that lived up to this one. Anywhere. He was worth it.
Trading for Pedro Martinez Since he came in November 1997, only the Braves and Yankees have won more games.
Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".
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