FOXBORO -- The Patriots defense needed a stop and they brought the house. Then San Francisco's quarterback, with all of five starts to his name, stood tall in the face of the seven-man rush and hit Michael Crabtree on a quick hitch that turned into a 38-yard touchdown.
Colin Kaepernick's fourth touchdown throw of the night proved to be the game-winner in the Niners' 41-34 win, and a missed opportunity for the Patriots defense.
"We run that call several times during the game," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick of the blitz. "We obviously just didn't play it well."
Kaepernick made a habit of taking advantage of the Patriots defense on Sunday night, and he started early. His first three attempts of the game went for first downs. His fifth pass went to former Patriots receiver Randy Moss for a 24-yard touchdown when Alfonzo Dennard was beaten on a seam route down the middle of the field.
The Niners second-year quarterback finished 14-for-25 with 216 yards, 4 touchdowns and an interception.
"He's been poised throughout," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "Nothing seems to rattle him. He's been able to just play his game. Even last week against Miami, game on the line, important drive, and he keeps it and runs down the sideline for a touchdown. We knew we weren't going to really rattle him or get him out of the game. We knew that he was a tough player."
The Patriots defense forced three Niners punts in the second half to allow Tom Brady and the rest of New England's offense to make their improbable comeback -- all the way back from 31-3 to tie the game at 31-31 -- but it also left plays on the field that would have made a comeback unnecessary.
The Niners fumbled six times -- including four during the center-quarterback exchange -- yet the Patriots recovered just one.
Dennard was beat a second time when he got caught in no-man's land covering two receivers on Kaepernick's second touchdown throw, a 34-yard touchdown pass to Delanie Walker.
Kaepernick's third touchdown toss -- a 27-yarder to Crabtree -- was squeezed in between McCourty and Steve Gregory, both of whom appeared to be a step late to the play.
The Niners got plenty of help. Patriots turnovers gave San Francisco good field position time and again. And one could argue the lack of Patriots fumble recoveries had to do with bad bounces, bad luck, rather than poor play.
But the mistakes -- when a player was slow in coverage, or in the wrong position -- came down to execution, the Patriots admitted.
"We dug ourselves a hole early and we couldn't fight out of it," Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "But the way we played, we can't beat anybody. We had opportunities, but we didn't make anything happen with some opportunities and we left a lot of plays on the field. You have to give them credit. They came in, they capitalized on our mistakes and that's what any good football team does."
The Patriots noted last week that they had to try to familiarize themselves quickly with all the different formations and personnel groupings used by the 49ers. They said after the game that they believed they had a good grasp of what San Francisco could do, they just didn't show it.
"It was a different look," said Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich of the Niners "pistol" offense. "You don't make excuses. They're a big, physical team. That's one thing we pride ourselves on is stopping the run with being physical and aggressive. You gotta give them credit of being able to give a different look and spinning the dial on us."
"Any time we lose a game it's disappointing," added Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. "But especially one like this where we had a good game plan. We just didn't go out and play. We couldn't get turnovers. We've been getting turnovers all year on the defensive side of the ball and we couldn't get any turnovers today."
They did recover a fumble deep in their own territory when Gregory forced a ball to the ground that was recovered by cornerback Aqib Talib, which helped keep the Patriots deficit to 7-0 after one quarter. They also got an interception in their own end zone by Devin McCourty, his second in as many games.
But on a messy night, against an inexperienced quarterback, and with their offense struggling against the top-ranked Niners defense, the Patriots 'D' knew it needed to make more impact plays.
For a unit that had been building confidence over the course of the last month as it put together solid performance after solid performance, Sunday night was a step back.
"You learn a lesson on this one," Ninkovich said. "It was like the tables were turned on us. For the first time we were playing from behind. We were not getting the turnovers, they were getting the turnovers. This one hurts. It doesn't leave a good taste in our mouth. I'll put it that way."
"We're still confident," he added. "You don't lose your confidence. I think this is a lesson learned as far as the wrong way to play a game. You learn your lesson, come in tomorrow, we're gonna watch the tape, work out and move on. Get ready for the next team. That's the way you have to look at it. You can't look at it for too long."