49ers lead Patriots 31-17 early in 4th quarter

Colin Kaepernick threw three touchdown passes and the San
Francisco 49ers led the turnover-prone New England Patriots 31-17
early in the fourth quarter on a rainy Sunday night.

Six days after the Patriots’ 42-14 win over the Houston Texans,
who had the NFL’s best record, they were on the other end in
another game against one of the league’s top teams.

Kaepernick, making his fifth start after replacing Alex Smith as
San Francisco’s starting quarterback, threw scoring passes of 24
yards to Randy Moss, 34 yards to Delanie Walker and 27 yards to
Michael Crabtree.

The game was going so well for the 49ers that they even scored
after Kaepernick fumbled on first-and-goal at the Patriots 3 after
a 66-yard fumble return by Dashon Goldson. Frank Gore got the loose
ball and ran 3 yards for the touchdown.

The Patriots turned the ball over again on the second play of
the next series when Tom Brady threw his second interception of the
game and just his seventh of the year. Aldon Smith got it, setting
the 49ers up at the Patriots 27. Kaepernick hit Crabtree on the
next play for a touchdown as the 49ers went ahead 31-3 with 10:21
left in the third quarter.

The Patriots had committed four turnovers to that point after
entering the game with an NFL-low 10.

Danny Woodhead scored on a 6-yard run with just under six
minutes left in the third, and New England closed to 31-17 when
Brady scored on a 1-yard sneak on the first play of the final
period.

The 49ers (9-3-1) would clinch a playoff berth with a victory.
They lead the NFC West over the second-place Seattle Seahawks
(9-5), who beat the Buffalo Bills 50-17 in Toronto earlier in the
day.

The Patriots (10-3) have clinched the AFC East title and are
going for home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
They trail Houston (12-2) for best record in the AFC. The Texans
clinched the AFC South on Sunday with a 29-17 win over the
Indianapolis Colts.

The Patriots have won their last 20 December games at home since
losing on Dec. 22, 2002.

New England entered the game ranked first in the NFL in points
scored and yards gained but struggled against a 49ers defense that
has allowed the fewest points and second fewest yards in the
league.

The Patriots were held to a 32-yard field goal by Stephen
Gostkowski in their lowest halftime output of the season. They had
six points at intermission during a 20-18 loss to the Arizona
Cardinals in the second game of the season.

Moss, who scored 23 touchdowns with the Patriots in 2007, filled
in for starting wide receiver Mario Manningham, who missed his
second game with a right shoulder injury. Moss got behind Alfonzo
Dennard and made the touchdown catch in the left side of the end
zone. The grab moved him into third place in NFL history with
15,219 yards receiving, passing Isaac Bruce’s 15,208.

Kaepernick wasted no time moving the ball through the air. His
first three plays all resulted in first downs – completions of 11
and 13 to Crabtree and 12 yards to Moss. Frank Gore then ran for 3
yards and, after an incompletion, Kaepernick hit Moss for the
TD.

The 49ers outgained the Patriots 249 yards to 113 in the first
half. New England struggled on its first five series with three
punts, an interception and a lost fumble before Gostkowski cut the
lead to 7-3 with 8:31 left in the second quarter.

The 49ers needed just three plays – plus a 35-yard defensive
pass interference call – to respond. After the penalty gave them a
first down at the Patriots 45, Gore ran twice for 8 and 3 yards
before Kaepernick hit Walker in the right side of the end zone with
Dennard covering,

San Francisco added a 20-yard field goal by David Akers on the
last play of the half.

The game was slowed by officiating confusion that led to several
lengthy conferences, including a delay of about 10 minutes while
deciding whether 49ers punt returner Ted Ginn Jr., muffed a
second-quarter kick. Officials ruled he didn’t touch the ball and
the 49ers got possession.

In the first quarter, Brady was hit twice by NFL sacks leader
Smith while trying to pass, then was intercepted by Carlos Rogers
when he overthrew Wes Welker. Rogers returned the interception 53
yards to the Patriots 5, where he was tackled by Brady.

But on the second play, Walker fumbled after a 1-yard catch and
Aqib Talib recovered for the Patriots. They couldn’t get a first
down and punted.

After three plays, the 49ers set up to punt but faked as Goldson
took the snap and ran 31 yards to the New England 28. Again, the
49ers failed to capitalize as Akers’ 39-yard field goal went wide
to the left with 2:14 left in the quarter.

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