Let's start with the turnovers…
– The refs failing to call a blatant pass interference call that led to Brady's first INT.
– Shane Vereen fumbling the slippery football deep in San Francisco territory
– With the Patriots driving and potentially able to cut the deficit to 7 early in the third, a well placed helmet jars the ball from Stevan Ridley
Given the physics involved, there's no way you could have expected him to hang onto the ball.
– Aaron Hernandez gets alligator arms one play after a vicious hit, resulting in the the ball ping-ponging into the arms of a San Fran defender for Brady's second INT
Other than Vereen's bobble, New England's turnovers weren't your typical turnovers where the QB makes a bad throw or the runner simply doesn't hold onto the ball. On the flip side, the Niners
fumbled six times according to the box score, and the Patriots didn't recover a single one. Even worse, the Niners actually scored a touchdown off of one of their fumbles. At some point, you just have to concede that tonight is just not your night.
Unless you're Tom Brady.
I have watched nearly every snap that Tom Brady has taken over the past twelve seasons, and I don't know if I've ever seen him look better than he did during the stretch of that 28-poing comeback. He had absolute control of that game. It was the sports equivalent of Mozart conducting a symphony. Whatever the Niners defense threw at him, he had the answer for it. Even if it meant throwing his own body into the fray and taking a hit. There are few times in life where you get to witness absolute greatness at its highest level. Watching Tom Brady during that stretch of 20 minutes in the second half, was exactly that.
Unfortunately, Tom Brady doesn't take part in defending kick-off returns. He also doesn't play cornerback, although one could argue that he may have done a better job than Kyle Arrington on San Francisco's go-ahead touchdown. And just like that, in two plays, the great comeback was squandered, and Brady's 28-point march, which would have gone down in Boston sports lore, will be lost to time.
Now for some big picture analysis…
Barring a miraculous event by the Browns or Chiefs against Denver, the Patriots have officially squandered their shot at a first round bye. I've documented on this blog before, how important the first-round bye has been to New England in the past (6 of their 7 have resulted in trips to the Super Bowl). However, all is not lost. Assuming that the Pats take care of the Jags and Phins the next two weeks, they will find themselves playing the #6 seed in the Wild Card round. If the Patriots aren't able to dispatch the Bengals, Steelers, or Jets at home in January, then they don't deserve to go to the Super Bowl anyway. The major downside to losing the bye is that the Wild Card game is another opportunity for injury and a missed opportunity for rest.
Then, assuming the Patriots do advance, they find themselves playing the exact same team that would have likely played as the #2 seed in the Broncos. The big difference here, of course, is that the location of the game will have changed. I know that Denver has been a historically difficult place for New England to play, but again, if the Patriots need home field advantage to beat the Broncos who have yet to beat ANYBODY of substance (and no, yesterday's win against the banged up Ravens who have looked abysmal the past five weeks doesn't count), then they don't deserve to go to the Super Bowl.
Barring a very fortunate turn of events, New England's path to New Orleans was nearly guaranteed to involve games against the Broncos and the Texans no matter how the seeding shook out. After last night's loss, that's still the case, albeit with a bit of a detour now. The bottom line is that there isn't a single team in the AFC who I believe the Patriots aren't clearly better than. If the Patriots play the way I know they can, it doesn't matter if the game is in Foxboro or a mile high on a mountain top.
And if they can get there, there's no team in the NFC that they can't go toe to toe with either. Green Bay is a more flawed version of the Patriots. I'll believe Atlanta is ready for prime time, when they actually get to New Orleans. The Giants are a mess right now. Seattle won't get the best of Brady twice, especially on a neutral field. And the Niners? Well, let's just say that the Patriots took their best shot, had everything go wrong for them that possibly could, and still managed to take them to the wire.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. But I like the Patriots chances in the AFC, and I like their chances against any potential Super Bowl opponent. In the end, that's all you can really ask for. Give me Belichick, give me Brady, give me Welker and Wilfork, and please, finally, give me Gronk and Hernandez healthy and playing together for the first time since Week 1, and let the chips fall where they may.
Last night wasn't pretty, and for the most part, it wasn't very fun. But it didn't do anything to shake my faith in this team. If anything, a nice slice of humble pie and a 28-point rally may be just what this team needed after cruising to victory week after week.