First they were plain awful.
Then they were plain awesome.
Then, with the game on the line, they reverted to their old, worst ways.
There was something for everyone in this game. If you’re the pessimistic type, there were signs aplenty that the Patriots offense could be rattled and stopped, and reasons to wonder whether the Pats could play enough defense to beat a good team.
For those in the crowd who prefer to see the glass as half full, there were periods of sustained, dazzling offense, and signs that the D could hold its own when it wasn’t put into deep holes by turnovers and errors.
As painful as the memory was, let’s consider that horrendous first half. For the past few weeks the Patriots had been both lucky and good. In the first half they were neither. Every mistake came back to bite them, and most of their opportunities went nowhere.
Tom Brady overthrew a receiver, and the interception return almost came back all the way. The Patriots fell asleep on a fake punt, Kaepernick’s numerous fumbles of the center snap resulted in zero turnovers. And the ruling on the punt return that may or may not have barely nicked Ted Ginn went the Niners’ way.
And it seemed like every time they touched the ball, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen gave new meaning to the season of giving.
You know things are bad when your team walks off the field at halftime down 21-3, and all you can say is, “It could have been a lot worse.”
And when your first third-down conversion comes with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter, all signs point to a public embarrassment on national TV.
And then the light switch went on. We’ll never know whether it was due to changes in the Patriots' approach or a switch to a more conservative zone coverage instead of the man-to-man that had worked for SF so well. Maybe it was divine intervention.
But all of a sudden the Patriots broke out of their funk, and next thing we knew a 28-point deficit had turned into a tie game.
Alas, the taste of victory that was beginning to taste so sweet took all of two plays to go sour. The evening that had started with ineptitude and embarrassment and then suddenly swung to hope and elation, ultimately ended up in frustration.
So I take away from this game four lessons.
First, I get a sense of Jim Harbaugh's thoughts on his quarterback situation: Colin Kaepernick is to Alex Smith as Tom Brady is to drew Bledsoe. The veteran is a great guy, a hard worker, a talented player, but he doesn’t have “it.” The young guy does. We know Brady has proven that he has “it” beyond a shadow of a doubt. Kaepernick has yet to prove “it” when “it” counts.
Second, there’s Bill’s constant message: This is far from a perfect team and there’s lots and lots of room for improvement. But I trust that this team will accept that message and get better.
Third, there’s always that one clunker game that every team throws in. After getting sky high for a big challenge against Houston last Monday, we all wondered whether the Pats would show a letdown. They did, but in the second half they woke up and still threw the fear of God into the Niners.
Fourth, you get the impression that this could very well be a preview of Super Bowl XLVII. Like Ali, the Patriots played rope-a-dope, took their best shot, and still almost pulled it out.
The next time around, in the NFL version of "Survivor," the Patriots will outwit (who would you take, Harbaugh or Belichick?) and outplay (do you prefer Brady or Kaepernick?) the bad boys from the Bay Area. Only this time they will outlast them as well.