Patriots' incredible comeback falls short in 41-34 loss to 49ers

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Patriots' incredible comeback falls short in 41-34 loss to 49ers

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,

Wrong.

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.

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

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STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

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Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

SAN FRANCISCO - An enraged Bryce Harper charged the mound, fired his helmet and traded punches to the head with San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland after getting hit by a fastball, setting off a wild brawl Monday during the Washington Nationals' 3-0 win over the Giants.

Drilled in the right hip by a 98 mph heater on Strickland's first pitch in the eighth inning with two outs, none on and Washington ahead 2-0, Harper didn't hesitate. The slugger pointed his bat at Strickland, yelled at him and took off.

No one got in Harper's way as he rushed the mound. His eyes were wide as he flung his helmet - it sailed way wide of Strickland, it might've slipped - and they started swinging away. The 6-foot-4 Strickland hit Harper in the face, then they broke apart for a moment before squaring off again. Harper punched Strickland in the head as the benches and bullpen emptied.

Giants teammates Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija collided hard as they tried to get between the two fighters. Three Giants players forcefully dragged Strickland from the middle of the pack all the way into the dugout, while a teammate held back Harper.

Harper and Strickland were both ejected. They have some history between them - in the 2014 NL Division Series, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland, and the All-Star outfielder glared at the reliever as he rounded the bases after the second shot in Game 4.