FOXBOROUGH – In the eyes of many, scoring 34 points against the NFL’s stingiest defense would have, or maybe should have, meant a victory Sunday night at Gillette Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers.
Especially putting up 28 straight points in the second half.
But the Patriots’ offense, showcasing the ability once again to pile up yards and points, also had a key hand in aiding the 49ers’ cause, turning the ball over a season-high four times in a quartet of game-changing plays that helped the visitors to a 31-3 lead.
All of which made the Patriots’ impressive, short-lived comeback from that deficit tough to take for the rain-soaked home fans. By the time the Patriots finally started clicking on offense, they were a mile behind. Catching the 49ers took less than 15 minutes on the game clock and swung the momentum completely around, but it’s what transpired before the late surge that ended the Patriots’ seven-game win streak.
“We just didn’t do a good job taking care of the ball,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Too many mistakes, too many things that weren’t good.”
When the Patriots weren’t good, the 49ers pounced. They had three one-play scoring drives in the game, which took 19 seconds. Total.
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley lost another fumble. Shane Vereen lost one, and Tom Brady was intercepted twice. The last two turnovers came on the Patriots’ first two drives of the second half, and doubled San Francisco’s two-touchdown halftime lead.
“We were turning the ball over. We just didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Brady said. “We spotted them 28 points. You can’t play poorly against a good team.”
The 49ers’ first two quick-strike touchdowns followed those Patriots’ second-half turnovers and helped San Francisco build that 31-3 lead less than five minutes into the third quarter, sending some in the crowd headed for the car.
That’s when the Patriots flipped the switch. Four consecutive touchdown drives, none of them easy or on a short field: 73 yards, 86 yards, 66 yards, 92 yards. All four coming against the league’s No. 2-ranked defense.
Brady threw for a season-high 443 yards, but needed to fling it 65 times to get there. The attempts are seven more than his previous high as a Patriot, never a good sign.
But he led the Patriots all the way back, combining with receiver Brandon Lloyd (10 catches, 190 yards, plus drawing a 38-yard pass interference penalty at the 5-yard-line) for a few big plays and doing some of the dirty work himself, leaping over the offensive line for a 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that made it 31-17.
“I had a feeling we’d be able to come back,” Brady said. “We hung in there, battled back, but made too many mistakes when we needed to make plays. It’s a tough loss.”
The Patriots finished with 13 more first downs than San Francisco (32-19), and outgained the 49ers, 520-383. Those are the kind of numbers that typically mean a comfortable win. On this night, though, it was the offensive miscues that mattered more.
“We didn’t coach well, we didn’t play well. We weren’t good on offense, weren’t good on defense, weren’t good on special teams,” Belichick said. “We’ve got to perform better than that. We didn’t, so that’s the result. We just didn’t do a good enough job tonight, it’s as simple as that.”
In addition to the turnovers, third-down conversions hampered the Patriots. They led the league coming in, converting more than 50 percent. The 49ers held New England to just 2 for 15. Combined with the turnovers, the third-down defense allowed the 49ers to become the first non-AFC East team to beat the Patriots at home in December in more than 15 years (Pittsburgh won, 24-21, on Dec. 13, 1997).
The Patriots finished with familiar numbers, scoring 8 more points than anybody else has this season on the 49ers. It was the unfamiliar numbers (four turnovers, two third-down conversions) that dug a hole that proved much too deep.