As the Patriots were down 28 points, I looked over to a friend of mine I was watching the game with and said, "They're going to come back but fall just short."
I wasn't entirely confident in the statement I'd made, but it became true. The game proved to be a rollercoaster against the San Francisco 49ers, who looked as formidable of a team as any in the first half. The second half was much different however, as the Patriots pulled themselves together and closed the deficit to tie the game at 31 midway through the fourth quarter.
Tom Brady and the offense somehow found their rhythm against the stifling 49ers defense and absolutely shredded them.
Whereas Brady was stymied in the first half by an endless pass rush and superb man coverage in the secondary, he picked apart the 49ers defense one play at a time in the second act. As the old cliche goes, Brady was a well oiled machine and was firing on all cylinders at a rapid pace.
While many will point to the change to zone coverage by the 49ers as their second half undoing, there was more to it: Tom Brady was simply not going to be stopped as long as he was kept upright. He and his teammates went to the no-huddle offense, attacked the 49ers vertically and got their two best playmakers—Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez—involved.
There were many plays which the 49ers did go back to their original game plan of playing man coverage across the board, but it didn't prove to be as effective as early on.
The reason for this was that the Patriots were running the no-huddle at a neck-breaking pace and simply wore the defense out. San Francisco's star pass rusher Aldon Smith was seen gasping for air while some of his teammates' hands were on their hips.
Further, the use of the offense forced the 49ers to play somewhat vanilla in their coverages, tipping off their intentions which consisted of both man and zone coverage.
This is what the no-huddle offense is at its best, creating simplified looks for the quarterback, which is especially problematic for a defense when the quarterback is Tom Brady. As a result, the Patriots kept on moving and attacking all three levels of the field as the defense wore down.
In the underneath area, the Patriots threw to Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker on pass routes when they had the matchup advantage. On two plays in particular, Hernandez was matched up with a linebacker and then a cornerback, both of which he beat for first downs.
The linebacker beaten was stud Patrick Willis, who was matched up with Hernandez in man coverage in the 49ers' Cover 2 Man (Man-Under) concept. Although Willis had the foot speed to match Hernandez, it was a difficult task to do so because of the tight end's alignment in the backfield.
Hernandez was lined up just inside of the Patriots' formation featuring "11" (one back, one tight end) personnel grouping on 3rd-and-10. Because of the tight ends alignment, Willis lined up outside of the tackle box.
When the ball was snapped, Hernandez released from the backfield and planted his outside foot into the ground, consequently forcing Willis to widen out before cutting back toward the middle of the field to form an Angle route.
Tom Brady then quickly found Hernandez open in the middle of the field and ahead of the stumbling Willis for a first-down reception.
A few plays later, Hernandez faced cornerback Carlos Rogers, who is a very good man-cover corner but still found it tough to cover the versatile tight end. Hernandez ran a vertical stem on a deep Curl route and broke it off in front of Rogers before Brady found him for the first down.
What the offense also did was attack the 49ers deep. In my Boston.com preview of the game, I detailed the possibility of this happening in the "What to Watch For" section if the Patriots got a favorable look.
Patriots’ deep passing: One of the most interesting things to watch for is if the Patriots will be able to attack the 49ers deep. The 49ers’ safeties are aggressive but disciplined. However, the Patriots have the players to attack vertically. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see the Patriots take shots outside the numbers against the 49ers when they are playing with one deep safety.
Fortunately for the offense, they did get a one-deep safety look from the 49ers on a few occasions. On one of them, Brady did a good job of finding Michael Hoomanawanui 41 yards down the field in the third quarter. Hoomanawanui ran past safety Donte Whitner and just outside the seam for the big reception.
Brady also targeted and found Brandon Lloyd deep on a few occasions, including twice in man coverage which he got a defensive pass interference called on the quarterback and a reception of 53 yards in the fourth quarter.
The 53-yard reception came against man coverage with Lloyd lined up to Brady's far right. The Patriots were in shotgun set "11" personnel once again and faced a two-deep safety look that would ultimately become one deep after a post-snap rotation by the strong safety.
Dealing with tight man coverage, Lloyd quickly got off of the line of scrimmage and raced past cornerback Chris Culliver. While doing so, he made a veteran move of quickly peeking back at the ball, which caused to Culliver to react by looking back as well.
When Culliver looked back, he lost ground on Lloyd, who looked ahead and ran past the cornerback for the long reception.
Overall, the game was unlike most Patriots games. There have been very few times which Bill Belichick's team has fallen behind so far and had to work back just to get back into the game. It was a rollercoaster game for what is usually a very even keel team, but it's one that the Patriots should be able to learn from.
They were able to find out how to attack the San Francisco 49ers' defense, even if it let up a little with the lead, and showed that they can overcome adversity.
While the focus was rightly so on the 28-point comeback, it was not stated enough at the conclusion of the game that the Patriots had four turnovers and were still in it until the end. Perhaps this game showed something that the recent years hadn't: mettle.