FOXBOROUGH — It was more or less impossible to watch how the 49ers’ 41-34 victory over the Patriots Sunday night played out, with two talented, tough and imperfect football teams trading blows, and wonder whether there may be a rematch in the making come February.
Not that anyone on the Niners, who built a 31-3 lead, watched it evaporate in less that a 15-minute stretch in the second half in which the Patriots scored 28 straight points, and then showed remarkable resolve behind young quarterback Colin Kaepernick in breaking the Patriots’ 20-game December win streak at home, would admit to looking that far ahead.
“We’re just going to keep working as a team and take one game at a time,” said running back Frank Gore, who ran for 83 yards on 21 carries. “We’ve got another one next, a big game against Seattle, a great team that is playing great.”
But it was apparent that the magnitude of the victory, which locked up a playoff spot for the 10-3-1 Niners, was not lost on them.
“It’s a huge task. It’s a huge challenge,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “This environment, in December, not a lot of teams have been successful. Really only in the last 11, 12 years, only one team has been successful. So I’m immensely proud of our team for that.”
Harbaugh apparently knows his Gillette Stadium history. The Patriots’ only other December home loss since the stadium opened in 2002 was a 30-17 loss to the Jets that first season.
“As a coach, as a player, you love all these wins,” he said when asked if this was the Niners’ biggest regular-season win in his tenure. “This is a great win. Our team has played in a lot of big-time pressure games, they’ve overcome adversity. Shown they can do that. I used to live next to a train station in Chicago. The more you hear the train, the less you hear it. I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure in big games. The more you hear it, the less you hear it. The more you feel it, the less you feel it.”
Harbaugh had high praise for Kaepernick, who finished 14 of 25 for 216 yards with four touchdown passes, including one for the first points of the game to former Patriot Randy Moss.
“[He had] over a 100-passer-rating [actually 107.7], in a real tough environment,” Harbaugh said. “It was raining the entire game, but he did a nice job powering the ball through the elements and through the defense at times. He didn’t make every play, but that’s a good football team we played.”
After the Patriots tore off their four second-half touchdowns (“Tom Brady-like,” said Harbaugh when asked to describe the performance, ”nothing else really to compare it to”) to tie the score, the Niners showed remarkable poise.
LaMichael James, following Delanie Walker down the left sideline, returned the kickoff 62 yards to the New England 38 with 6:43 remaining.
“I trust Delanie, he always gets his block, and that took me to the promised land,” James said. “I did as much as I could to help the team win, and that’s pretty much it. One play doesn’t win a game, though.”
But for all intents and purposes, the next play did. On the first play from scrimmage after the return, Kaepernick, under siege from an all-out blitz, found Michael Crabtree matched up against Kyle Arrington, who was in for the injured Alfonzo Dennard. After catching the pass along the left sideline, Crabtree shook Arrington and sprinted into the end zone for a 38-31 lead. It was a sharp move by Crabtree, and according to Harbaugh, a great read by Kaepernick.
“That was not where he was supposed to go with the ball,” he said. “Wasn’t the intended play. But he saw what he saw and kicked it out to Michael and Michael made a huge play.”
Kaepernick wasn’t flawless — he fumbled four times, losing one, while struggling with the exchange from center. But he did make the big play in the big moment, something rarely happens for opposing quarterbacks at Gillette Stadium in December.
“It’s a little bit crazy, a little bit surreal,” Kaepernick said, “but I’m just trying to keep my head down and trying to keep it going as long as I can.”