How New England Patriots Can Build off 41-34 Loss to San Francisco 49ers

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How New England Patriots Can Build off 41-34 Loss to San Francisco 49ers
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A safety on the opening offensive play of the game.

An interception on the opening offensive drive.

An 83-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play of the game.

These, in reverse order, are some of the big plays that have resulted in the New England Patriots' three most recent playoff losses. While opponents certainly get credit for making those plays, these are the types of mistakes the Patriots haven't made in the regular season, and almost never make when they win.

They almost made multiple mistakes like that against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football, and they nearly came out with the win.

Here are some things they can do differently to come out on the right end of another such game in the future.

 

Fewer Bad Decisions at Quarterback

Fumbles, special teams errors, penalties and a laundry list of other problems need to be corrected, but the Patriots can't win when quarterback Tom Brady makes bad decisions with the football.

Give him a lot of credit for how he played in engineering four consecutive touchdown drives, but he's not bulletproof. 

The throws on his interceptions were bad decisions and poor throws.

There was an inexplicable pass to a double-covered Wes Welker down the seam. Welker might have been a bit more open had he not been held, and he might have at least been able to contest the interception had he kept running after being held.

But none of it changes the fact that Brady threw the pass to a 5'8" slot receiver into double-coverage down the field against a ball-hawking secondary. Not the brightest decision he's ever made.

Another example was the screen pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez. It's not a bad decision in and of itself, but just the play prior, Hernandez had been rocked within an inch of having his head knocked off. Brady could have audibled or gone elsewhere with the ball, but he decided to ride it out.

Bad decision.

Considering Brady's sterling track record of making good decisions, this issue isn't particularly concerning. Brady has been intercepted on a lower percentage of his passes than any other quarterback in the league, with just 1.1 percent of his passes being picked off.

It just proves what we already knew: When Brady isn't playing well, the Patriots do not look great on offense.

The late push to tie the game, however, proves that Brady is capable of making the right adjustments during the course of the game. No matter how bad they look early, it's impossible to count them out of any game after what they did against San Francisco.

Just ask former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who famously stated from the sideline in Super Bowl 38, "It ain't over yet; not with that dude, with that quarterback."

 

Fix Special Teams Errors

To say the game was won or lost by one player or one play would be inaccurate. 

The play that spelled the beginning of the end of New England's comeback attempt came immediately after the Patriots tied the game, when 49ers running back LaMichael James returned the ensuing kickoff 68 yards.

The 49ers got all the key blocks they needed and set up the offense in excellent field position, but it was the defense that gave up a one-play touchdown drive the moment they took the field.

Who knows what happens without that kickoff return, but that was far from the only special teams mistake the Patriots made on Sunday night.

The Patriots also had three holding penalties on punt returns, and they had to start those drives from the 20-, 8- and 3-yard lines. 

Welker had one return to the Patriots' 48-yard line, but it was called back, and the Patriots turned the ball over on the next play. The drive that started on the 3-yard line would be New England's final chance to tie the game, negating a 12-yard return by Welker.

The Patriots are penalized an average of 6.2 times per game. They had nearly half that many on special teams alone.

 

Hang on to the Football

The Patriots offense had 10 turnovers headed into Sunday's game, the league's best mark. Their four on Sunday drops them to fourth in the league. 

These are tough times in New England.

If the Patriots want to make a deep run in the playoffs, fumbles can't happen, especially not two of them, both in their own territory.

Conditions played a part in the messy game—just ask 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who bobbled four center-snap exchanges on the night. 

Running back Shane Vereen had a fumble on New England's fifth drive of the night, during the Patriots' Murphy's Law start to the game.

A look at Vereen before the hit reveals him holding the ball closer to his waist than his chest as his arm swings back while running. Linebacker Navorro Bowman made a heads-up play to knock the ball out, stripping Vereen's arm and bringing him down to make sure he couldn't recover his own fumble.

That is a credit to Bowman's awareness and his ability to knock the ball out, but it was certainly more preventable than the fumble by running back Stevan Ridley. Fumbles were a problem for Ridley late in his rookie season, and they reared their head on Sunday night in the second half...but was this a problem, or a result of good defense?

49ers safety Donte Whitner laid a perfect hit with his helmet on the football, jarring it loose. 

The image of the ball popping up in the air and into the waiting arms of safety Dashon Goldson was a bit of déjà vu from the Thanksgiving blowout of the Jets, as was the game on the whole, in the sense that one team dug itself into an early hole with one mistake after another while the other team cruise-controlled to a big lead. 

This time it was different, though, because New England kept fighting back.

 

Never out of It

We've seen the Patriots build big leads on opponents, only to watch the opponent come roaring back. It turns out the Patriots are capable of doing things on the other side of the coin, too. Much like many of New England's victims, in that regard, the outcome was similar: The comeback fell short.

Down 28 points against the best defense in the league, lesser opponents would have mailed it in. Instead, New England found a way to fix what it had done wrong up to that point and put together its own furious comeback attempt.

When they started taking advantage of San Francisco's aggressive style of play was when they really started clicking.

Brady had a great audible to do just that on 4th-and-2 in the third quarter. Brady faked the handoff to the left, causing the defense to drift that way.

The clear route by Lloyd got Welker so wide open that Brady threw a terrible ball and he still caught it, picking up 15 yards after the catch.

They also started attacking Aldon Smith's side of the field with Aaron Hernandez. 

The 49ers' sack master was lined up over Hernandez in man coverage at the goal line, but at the snap of the ball, he kicked inside and came on the blitz.

Brady read it perfectly, targeting the uncovered Hernandez for the easy touchdown.

Cris Collinsworth shared his thoughts on the call:

Aldon Smith [is] out there on the slot, they're going to bring him this time, and then they get the simple out [route] off of it against man coverage by Donte Whitner, and Tom Brady just made this look too easy.

 

Clutch Players

The Patriots have a long list of players ready to step up with a big play in a key moment. Danny Woodhead, Rob Ninkovich, Welker, Hernandez and Vince Wilfork are just some of New England's most clutch players.

All have made some big contributions in the past (with Woodhead and Ninkovich both being highlighted on the AFC East blog in the past). A playoff run will begin and end with the output of those players.

Ninkovich forced an early fumble on Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow in the 2011 Divisional Round. Wilfork was an impact player against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Hernandez and Woodhead both caught touchdown passes in Super Bowl XLVI

It's no surprise that all of the players listed above were a big part in New England's momentous comeback.

Welker had been targeted three times with no catches, while New England had mustered just three points. He finished with five catches for 56 yards. His numbers could have been better if they had found a way to get him the ball early. Hernandez was targeted four times with two catches in the first half. He finished with 10 catches for 92 yards and a touchdown.

As has been the theme with this column, give credit to the 49ers for bracketing Welker and to their linebackers for taking away Hernandez, but this should serve as a stark reminder that the Patriots are at their best moving the ball when they throw to those targets.

There's a fine line, though, between going to those targets and forcing it to those targets. The Patriots were a victim of the latter in the first half (Welker and Hernandez interceptions), but were much smarter in their use of those clutch players in the second half.

The fact that New England has so many players on the roster means they have that many players they can turn to when the going gets tough.

 

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.

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