49ers vs. Patriots: Why 41-34 Loss Doesn't Doom New England's Playoff Hopes

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IDecember 17, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 16: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots looks down the goal line after coming up short of a touchdown after running in with the ball against Patrick Willis #52 of the San Francisco 49ers during the game at Gillette Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Tonight's game had the potential to be a statement win for either team.

It ended up being a statement loss for the New England Patriots.

That statement was simple: The Patriots are not infallible. They are capable of making mistakes, and those mistakes can cost them the game.

We can pick nits about the decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 down 38-31 with two timeouts and less than three minutes left, and we can talk about the Patriots' early struggles to move the ball (0-for-7 in the first half on third down, 2-for-15 on the game), but the loss came down to mistakes on behalf of New England.

Four turnovers. Eight penalties for 73 yards. Busted coverage on defense, giving 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick some really easy throws.

Give the 49ers credit for building a 31-3 lead on the Patriots, but give the Patriots a lot of credit for adjusting to what the 49ers were doing, fixing the mistakes and executing well enough and for long enough to climb back in the game.

"We fought hard," Patriots quarterback Brady said (via PatsFans.com), "but you can't play poorly against a good team and expect to win."

Brady may have played poorly to start the game (10-of-19 passing, 76 yards, interception, 40.7 passer rating in the first half), but with four consecutive touchdown drives of 73, 86, 66 and 92 yards against the league's No. 1 defense, the Patriots proved what they can do to even the better defenses in the league when they are firing on all cylinders.

As was the case in the first half, they proved what defenses can do to them when they're not firing on any cylinders.

"I think everyone just has to focus on possession of the ball; we have to focus on doing our job, the execution of the play" said Brady, adding:

What we did in the second half on scoring drives, that's what we have to do throughout the course of the game. That's what we've been doing, we just didn't do it very well in the first half.

The Patriots entered Sunday's game leading the NFL in turnover differential with a plus-24 margin, the best mark in the league. This is the first game all season where the Patriots have lost the turnover battle.

Whether on the defensive or offensive side of the ball, turnovers are at the forefront of the discussion.

This week, and over the past few weeks, the Pats defense has improved in that area. They forced three consecutive punts (a streak which was only broken following a 62-yard return) while New England mounted its comeback.

The loss snaps New England's seven-game winning streak, and ends the team's 21-game winning streak in the second half of the season dating back to 2010.

Their road certainly got tougher—they are no longer in the driver's seat for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, now behind the Denver Broncos, who are 11-3—but it does not dash New England's playoff dreams. 

The way this team showed it can play, when things are clicking, they can still be a contender in January.

Will they be? They're the only ones, it seems, that can stop them.


Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand or via team press releases.