FOXBORO -- In the end, the Sunday night showdown between one of the best teams in the NFC (the 49ers) and one of the best in the AFC (the Patriots) lived up to its billing. And then some.
Just not the way everyone expected, is all.
The Pats' record-setting offense misfired on all cylinders in the first two quarters, running up only 113 yards in the first half and committing four turnovers before the game was 35 minutes old. No wonder then, that they found themselves on the short end of a 31-3 score with about 10 minutes to play in the third quarter.
Then they found their rhythm, scoring touchdowns on four consecutive possessions (all on drives of 66 or more yards, with two of them covering more than 85 yards) and, incredibly, tying the score at 31-31.
But just when folks were reaching for the record books to see how historic this was -- the answer is "very"; had the Pats won, they would have tied the NFL mark for greatest comeback in a regular-season game -- San Francisco and its rookie quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, snapped back. The 49ers retook the lead, stopped Tom Brady and the Pats the next two times New England had the ball, and added a field goal that gave them an insurmountable 10-point lead with less than two minutes to play.
The result: An eventual 41-34 San Francisco victory that left the nation's football fans -- the ones that didn't click off their sets when it was 31-3 -- satisfied that they'd gotten what they came for.
"Great victory," said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. "I really liked how our team sucked it up so many times. We didnt make all of the plays, but we made a lot of plays. Didnt make most of the plays; they made plays too, but we made more. It will be a happy flight home."
The Patriots, naturally, found no comfort in the fact that they put on a good show. As Bill Belichick explained:
"We weren't good on offense, weren't good on defense, weren't good enough on special teams . . . We just didn't do a good job tonight. It's as simple at that."
No they didn't do a good job, especially in the first half . . . although it could have been a lot worse than it was:
-- After the 49ers had taken a 7-0 lead on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Randy Moss, Carlos Rogers picked off Brady and returned it 53 yards to the Patriots' 5. They came away empty, however, when Delanie Walker fumbled after catching a short pass and Aqib Talib recovered.
-- A gutsy fake-punt call on fourth-and-10 from their own 41 picked up 31 yards on a run by Dashon Goldson. But, again, they got nothing out of it when the struggling David Akers missed a 39-yard field goal.
-- Later in the first quarter, a fumble by Shane Vereen gave the 49ers possession on the New England 34. San Francisco turned it over, though, when Kaepernick was unable to convert a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 from the 25.
When the Pats closed to 7-3 on a 32-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, there was a sense -- even though they'd squandered a chance to tie the score after reaching the San Francisco 7 -- that the Patriots had dodged a bullet. That the 49ers had failed to put them away when they had a chance, and now the Patriots were going to make them pay,
Kaepernick -- helped by a 35-yard pass interference penalty against Talib, which moved the ball from the San Francisco 20 to the New England 45 on the drive's first play -- needed three plays to increase the lead to 14-3, hitting Walker with a 34-yard touchdown pass. They made it 17-3 when Akers drilled a 20-yard field goal on the final play of the half, capping a 15-play, 76-yard drive that killed the last six minutes of the half.
And then it got worse.
A Devin McCourty end-zone interception snuffed a 49ers drive that seemed destined for paydirt, but San Francisco got the ball right back when Stevan Ridley fumbled three plays later and Goldson ran it back 66 yards inside the New England 10. Frank Gore scored on a nine-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, making it 24-3.
The fourth New England turnover of the game, an Aldon Smith interception of Brady, followed almost immediately afterward. and Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree with a 27-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage for a 31-3 lead with 10:26 to play. In the third quarter.
"Just a lot of bad football," said Wes Welker.
The Patriots scored what looked like a make-it-somewhat-respectable touchdown on their next possession, going 73 yards in 13 plays and cutting the lead to 31-10 when Danny Woodhead ran it in from six yard out. The defense forced a 49er punt and Brady made it 31-17 when he scored on a fourth-down, one-yard quarterback sneak early in the fourth quarter, capping an 86-yard march.
And then the 49ers went three-and-out on the next possession . . . and things got interesting.
A 15-yard Brady-to-Welker pass on a fourth-and-two gave the Pats a first down on the San Francisco 43. Two plays later, Tarrell Brown was called for pass interference on Brandon Lloyd at the 49ers' 5-yard line, giving the Pats a first-and-goal. Brady passed to Aaron Hernandez for a touchdown on the next play and, suddenly, it was a one-possession game -- 31-24 -- with 12:17 to play.
Again, the 49ers went three-and-out. Again, the Pats took over deep in their own territory. And again, Brady guided them downfield with ease: 92 yards (53 of them on a pass to Brandon Lloyd) in 7 plays, with Woodhead running in from a yard out.
It had taken four possessions, and approximately 18 minutes, for Brady and the Patriots to erase a 31-3 deficit and tie the game.
"It was really good," Harbaugh said in admiration of Brady's performance. "Tom Brady-like. Nobody else to compare it to."
"It was execution," said Brady. "It wasn't like there was a magic formula to what we were doing. We just stopped killing ourselves. We just can't turn the ball over, we can't miss plays we have opportunities at.
"We hit a few of those, and that's why we moved the ball."
But that was the high point.
Eighteen seconds after Woodhead scored, the 49ers moved back in front for good, LaMichael James' 62-yard kickoff return gave them the ball at the New England 38, and Kaepernick hit Crabtree for a touchdown on the very next play, making it 38-31.
Brady and the offense went back to work, but the tank was empty. They punted on their next possession and failed to convert a fourth down deep in their own territory on the next, setting up a 28-yard Akers field goal with just under two minutes to play that gave the 49ers a two-possession lead.
The Pats scrambled and -- with no time outs remaining -- were able to get in position for a 41-yard Gostkowski field goal with 43 seconds left. But the 49ers recovered the ensuing onside kick, ending the game.
"We didn't start very well," said Welker, "and it just wasn't enough at the end to win the game."
The defeat -- the Pats' first loss in the second half of a season since 2009, and only their second December loss at Gillette Stadium since it opened in 2002 -- carries a very costly price. It drops New England to 10-4 and, in all likelihood, will cost the Pats a first-round playoff bye. They're now seeded third behind Houston (12-2) and Denver (11-3); the Texans would have to lose both their remaining games for the Patriots to have a chance to catch them, and the Broncos would have to lose once. Considering their remaining schedules, neither seems likely.
Not that Belichick -- who, clearly perturbed by the defeat, was at his taciturn worst at the podium -- is pondering any of that.
"Were thinking about Jacksonville right now," he said when asked about playoff probabilities. "Thats the next team on our schedule."
Brady didn't have quite the same tunnel vision."Certainly, the season isnt over," he said. "Weve got a lot of football to play."
It's doubtful, though, that any of it will be as dramatic as it was Sunday night.