49ers withstand comeback, top Patriots 41-34

LaMichael James awaited the kickoff, determined to regain the

momentum for the 49ers after they quickly lost all of a 28-point

lead.

”We need a boost,” he said. ”That’s what I was thinking. I

was thinking I got to take it to the house.”

He didn’t get all the way there, but close enough to set up the

decisive touchdown – going 62 yards before Colin Kaepernick’s

38-yard pass to Michael Crabtree with 6:25 left – that helped San

Francisco reach the playoffs with a 41-34 win over the New England

Patriots on Sunday night.

”We faced adversity,” James said. ”Nobody flinched.”

Now the 49ers have at least a wild-card berth with a 10-3-1

record, knowing a win against division rival Seattle (9-5) next

Sunday clinches the AFC West title.

The Patriots (10-4) already had locked up first place in the AFC

East with a chance to improve their chances for a first-round bye.

They began the day in second place in the race for the two byes but

fell behind the Denver Broncos (11-3). The Houston Texans (12-2)

hold the top spot.

”We haven’t thought about that yet,” Tom Brady said. ”What’s

in our control is winning football games.”

Doing that on Sunday night seemed almost impossible after the

49ers rolled to a 31-3 lead on Kaepernick’s 27-yard touchdown pass

to Crabtree five minutes into the third quarter. Only one team in

NFL history had won a regular-season game after trailing by 28 – a

38-35 win by the 49ers over the New Orleans Saints on Dec. 7,

1980.

But with 25 minutes left and Brady at quarterback, the 49ers

weren’t comfortable.

”Tom is a good quarterback and we knew some adversity was going

to come and they were going to make plays sooner or later,”

linebacker NaVorro Bowman said.

They did – time after time – until they had tied the score at 31

on Danny Woodhead’s second touchdown, a 1-yard run with 6:43

remaining.

Woodhead began the comeback with a 6-yard touchdown run, Brady

scored on a 1-yard sneak on the first play of the fourth quarter

and then threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez less than

three minutes later. And when Woodhead scored again, the Patriots

had their fourth touchdown in 14 minutes, 16 seconds.

But two plays later – James’ kickoff return and Crabtree’s catch

– the 49ers were back on top. And this time they stayed there.

David Akers made it 41-31 with a 28-yard field goal with 1:56 to

go, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 41-yarder for New England with 38

seconds remaining and San Francisco sealed the win when Delanie

Walker caught the onside kick.

”We just spotted them 28 points,” Brady said. ”We fought

hard, but you can’t play poorly against a good team and expect to

win. We can’t miss plays that we have opportunities with.”

For Kaepernick, a second-year pro starting just his fifth game,

it was a chance to remain calm even as the big lead disappeared. He

finished with 14 completions in 25 attempts for 216 yards and a

career-high four touchdowns.

”This is my 17th year of football,” he said. ”I’ve been

playing since I was eight years old. So, to me, I am going to go

out there and I’m going to throw to the guy who is open and you try

to keep football simple so your mind can be clear when you’re on

the field.”

It was clear enough for him to throw a short pass to Crabtree

then watch him race by cornerback Kyle Arrington for the go-ahead

touchdown. That gave the team that had allowed the fewest points

this season enough to beat the team that had scored the most.

”We can win a shootout,” said Crabtree, who had 107 yards

receiving. ”Whatever it takes, that’s our motto. … We feel like

we can do anything, sky’s the limit.”

New England, which had won seven straight games, lost for the

first time at home in December in 21 games. The Patriots also had

won 21 in a row in the second half of the schedule before San

Francisco somehow regrouped late in a game it seemingly had

clinched long before.

The 49ers forced four turnovers, matching the number of

giveaways the Patriots had at home all season.

”I don’t think they faced a physical defense like us all

season,” said San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers, who

intercepted Brady midway through the first quarter and ran 53 yards

to the Patriots 5.

The 49ers were leading 7-0 at the time on Kaepernick’s 24-yard

touchdown pass to former Patriot Randy Moss. Gostkowski’s 32-yard

field goal made it 7-3, but San Francisco scored on Kaepernick’s

34-yard pass to Walker and David Akers’ 20-yard field goal for a

17-3 lead at intermission.

”Everything” went wrong in the first half, Patriots wide

receiver Wes Welker said. ”A lot of bad football.”

Frank Gore then recovered Kaepernick’s fumble and ran 9 yards

for a touchdown. Two plays later, Aldon Smith intercepted Brady’s

pass and Kaepernick struck on the next play with his 27-yard pass

to Crabtree for a 31-3 lead with 10:21 remaining in the third

quarter.

Still plenty of time for Brady.

”I had a feeling we’d be able to come back,” he said.

But when the Patriots tied it, a poor job by the kickoff team

proved costly.

”I did as much as I could to help the team win,” James

said.

It was just enough.

NOTES: The 49ers allowed 520 yards after entering the game

second in the NFL in fewest yards allowed, 275.5 per game. …

Welker had five catches, giving him 100 and making him the first

player in NFL history with that many in five seasons. … Gore led

all rushers with 83 yards on 21 carries. … Brady was 36 for a

career-high 65 for 443 yards, one touchdown and two

interceptions.

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