49ers vs. Patriots: New England's Biggest Winners and Losers from Week 15
It was a wild Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium, where the frosted breath of heavyweights lingered in the winter air and the resilience of beaten men were tested. On this night, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots climbed out of a 28-point hole and nearly gave us one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL history.
The Patriots can walk away from their 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers with their heads held high. Fans can too. This team played terrific football down the stretch and showed true guts, true heart and true skill.
Patriot Nation can feel good about the their chances in a possible rematch with the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Here are New England's biggest winners and losers from Week 15.
Winner: Tom Brady
Although Tom Brady struggled for over half of this game, he mounted a thrilling comeback.
Brady's first important point of resurgence came in the fourth quarter, when he launched himself over the pile on fourth down for a score, trimming San Francisco's lead to 14 points.
He kept the momentum going, hooking up with Wes Welker on a huge fourth down gamble and later finding Aaron Hernandez for a big score, bringing San Francisco's lead to seven.
On his next possession, he hooked up with Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch for a pair of breathtaking first downs. Brady slid for another first down at the goal line. San Francisco bit on a faux quarterback sneak, as Brady handed it off to Danny Woodhead for a rushing score, knotting the game at 31.
Although Brady's comeback effort ultimately fell short, his performance remains a true testament to the very definition of "greatness."
Loser: Stevan Ridley
Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball on the second play of the night. At that moment, it was clear this game would be a long, daunting climb up the mountain.
The refs overturned Ridley's gaffe and ruled him down, but the psychological damage was done. It was contagious. The Patriots immediately found themselves on shaky terrain and wobbled through the first two quarters, seemingly unsure of everything they did.
Later, in the third quarter, Donte Whitner popped the ball out of Ridley's hands. The fumble eventually led to a touchdown from Frank Gore, bumping San Francisco's lead to 21 points.
Toward the end of the third quarter, Ridley failed to convert a 3rd-and-goal opportunity. Tom Brady hopped over the scrum for the score on fourth down and led the team on a blistering comeback attempt, but the effects of Ridley's missed opportunities (and his mere 23 yards on the night) were always felt.
Winner: Brandon Lloyd
Brandon Lloyd played a significant role in New England's comeback attempt against the 49ers, hauling in a seemingly endless stream of timely, acrobatic catches (one of which went for 53 yards).
He drew a huge defensive pass interference flag on Tarell Brown to keep a critical fourth-quarter drive alive, which eventually resulted in a score. He also caught a pivotal first down on another late scoring drive.
Lloyd seemed to be everywhere at once; he ended up with a season-high 10 catches for 190 yards. He provided some essential drama to electrify the crowd, which added fire to a comeback rally that nearly went down in football lore.
Winner or Loser: Wes Welker
Wes Welker is a winner or loser in this game, depending on your perspective.
Welker played pretty well on Sunday night. He had a beautiful fourth-down conversion on a scoring drive in the fourth quarter. He finished with five catches for 56 yards.
But the drama of the night really never belonged to Welker. Instead, the drama of the comeback belonged to Tom Brady, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead.
Throughout New England's amazing comeback attempt on Sunday night, Wes Welker never looked like the most lethal man on the field. He was never a big-time threat to the 49ers.
For a future Hall of Famer, that's a problem.
Winners: Unsung Heroes, Old Reliables and Rising Stars
In the first quarter, Justin Francis broke up a third-down snap to Colin Kaepernick.
In the second quarter, Mike Rivera notched a big tackle on special teams, while Deion Branch converted a fourth-down situation for New England.
In the third quarter, Michael Hoomanawanui caught a 41-yard pass from Tom Brady.
Justin Francis made another big appearance down the stretch, this time contributing to the big comeback attempt when he registered a huge tackle on Frank Gore and forced the 49ers to punt. This led to New England's game-tying drive.
Also, Dont'a Hightower had his best game of the season with eight tackles, one pass defended and an aggressive hit on LaMichael James which illustrated the heights of Hightower's potential.
All in all, a great night for unsung heroes, old reliables and rising stars.
Loser: New England's Special Teams
Tom Brady marched the Patriots back from the depths of despair and tied the game at 31. At that point, New England had every last scrap of momentum on its side.
But then, 49ers running back LaMichael James ran back a kick for 62 yards on special teams, giving Colin Kaepernick amazing field position. On the next play, Kaepernick launched a bullet to Michael Crabtree, who outwitted Kyle Arrington and scooped up 38 yards for the touchdown.
The 49ers went up 38-31.
It all traced back to James' 62-yard run, which revealed itself to be the most important play of the game. New England's inability to stop that run was fatal, as it halted its comeback momentum and gave the 49ers an extra burst of energy to push them across the finish line.
There's also the lingering issue of Julian Edelman's absence, something that continues to be felt on returns. This is a problem that isn't going away.
Last but not least, there was San Francisco's fake punt, resulting in a 31-yard gash for Dashon Goldson.
Arguably the worst night of the year for special teams.
Winners or Losers: The Defensive Backs
New England's defensive backs could be seen as winners or losers on Sunday night, depending upon which plays you cite as your evidence.
First, the bad evidence.
Michael Crabtree abused Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory from the get-go, while Randy Moss and Delanie Walker beat Alfonzo Dennard for touchdowns.
Down the stretch, after a major error in coverage on special teams, Crabtree beat Kyle Arrington for a critical 38-yard touchdown.
Now, the good evidence.
Steve Gregory laid down a wicked hit on Delanie Walker and forced a fumble in the first quarter. Later, Gregory broke up a big pass to Michael Crabtree.
Alfonzo Dennard had a few nice moments, forcing Crabtree out of bounds to prevent a big play and later breaking up a potential touchdown pass to Randy Moss.
Aqib Talib was able to draw an offensive pass interference flag on Moss to tick away the first half, while Devin McCourty notched a beautiful end-zone interception in the third quarter.
As you can see, there's plenty of bad evidence and good evidence to support either perspective.
Loser: New England's Defensive Line
Colin Kaepernick is a backup quarterback. There's no rhyme or reason why he should be orchestrating anything at Gillette Stadium, let alone four touchdown passes and a sense of domination.
It's extremely unsettling that Kaepernick didn't look rattled until the fourth quarter, when Rob Ninkovich finally notched New England's first sack of the evening.
But even then, Kaepernick's feathers weren't really ruffled, as he was able to stay calm and make huge plays in a game which suddenly became very tight.
New England's inability to mentally or physically disrupt an inexperienced backup quarterback is disturbing.
This was the type of performance which illustrates how an entire season of work and progress can evaporate in the blink of an eye.
Winner: Danny Woodhead
On a night where Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both fumbled, Danny Woodhead stepped up. He gained steam in the second quarter, stringing together some impressive runs. He notched a first down which ultimately led to New England's first three points of the game.
Woodhead's energy uplifted the Patriots and aided their quest for a comeback. He finished with 12 carries, 61 yards (his highest this season) and a pair of scores.
All in all, a very nice evening for Woody.
Loser: Tom Brady
Yes, Tom Brady already made this list as New England's standout winner.
But he also struggled in this game for well over two quarters. Early hits from Aldon Smith put him in an immediate funk. The Patriots had three points at halftime. Brady finished with a completion rate of 55.4 percent (his lowest this season) and two interceptions (tied for his highest this season).
Had Brady completed his epic comeback attempt against the 49ers on Sunday night, he would've won the MVP award right then and there.
But his comeback attempt fell short.
Still a tight competition for MVP, but Brady could've ended the race on Sunday.