It’s not often the No. 1 defense and offense square off against each other in such dramatic fashion, as the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots did on Sunday night. With both teams aggressively pursuing a high seed in the playoffs and dreams of a first-round bye, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest we may have witnessed a Super Bowl preview. This game came at a crucial time in the year for both teams, and with the right mindset, it will help both them tremendously while moving forward into the playoffs. Don’t kid yourself: the loss hurts, but the 49ers may have done the Patriots a favor that could come back to haunt them.
The San Francisco 49ers learned they can beat anybody in the league not named the St Louis Rams. Colin Kaepernick now knows what it’s like to walk into a stadium and win where other QBs routinely fail in December. The confidence gained for a new starting QB like Kaepernick can’t be understated here. He’s won tough against grinder teams like the Chicago Bears, and now he’s won in a total shootout against one of the best quarterbacks of all time, on the road. Beyond BIG.
The Pats learned they can hang 28 points in 20 minutes on the best defense in football, but they can’t play two complete halves against them. Between 10 plays on their first three drives and some ugly, ugly turnovers, the best part of New England’s first half against the 49ers was Tom Brady’s TD-saving tackle of Carlos Rogers at the five-yard line. Everyone laughs at the QBs for trying to make tackles on their own picks, but the Pats got the ball back two plays later thanks to a Delanie Walker fumble. That’s seven points kept off the board. New England also learned the 49ers have a serious kick returner in LaMichael James, who may wipe all the sins and memories of Ted Ginn Jr, Kyle Williams, AND Brandon Jacobs off the roster. The result of the game was up in the air until James took a kickoff 62-yards after New England’s fourth consecutive score. The next play? A short pass to Michael Crabtree, who took it 38 yards to the house untouched.
If I’m Belichick, I have my defense watch the game tape of the 49ers defense and tell them “that’s how the best defense in the league plays. Play like them.” For too long, the Patriots’ offense has bailed out a less-than-average defense. On a night when the offense was off its game, the defense surrendered 41 points at home to a QB with less than half a season under his belt. I don’t care what anyone says about the Pats’ improved defense, it’s not close to ready yet. Sure, the 49ers’ defense wilted in the second half with a big lead, but they closed out the game when they had to against the best offense in the league. Game over, a win is a win. Make no mistake though, the Patriots’ offense needs a wakeup call.
Between the carpet bombing of the Houston Texans the week before and their performance against the 49ers, Brady’s offense is scary and will get better. Yes, the first half shut out was a surprise, but keep in mind it came against the best defense in the league. So did the 28 points in under 20 minutes that defined the second half. Those came against the best defense in the league too. The lesson for New England’s offense? You have to play TWO halves, but when you do…BOOM. Now imagine when Rob Gronkowski gets back in the lineup. Nobody in the league has found a way to match up against Gronkowski and the 49ers didn’t get that chance. He’ll be back for the playoffs, though. Bad news for the rest of the league. That broken arm on field goal unit a month ago? It might be a blessing in disguise.
Getting a sense of your strengths and weaknesses in a blowout can come in handy much farther down the road. The best team I played on in college was the Simon Fraser University team in 2003, a team that overcame a lot of critics and doubters to win the Hardy Cup as CanadaWest Champions. We played the University of Regina in our fourth game of the year at home. We opened with 28 points on offense in the FIRST quarter, and every single one of them came through the air even though we were a run-first offense. To their credit Regina was a physical team and not a cake walk to play. We hit the wall after that but still managed to pull out a 32-26 victory.
After the game our offense was understandably frustrated. True, we played well enough to win, but we knew one good quarter can’t makeup for three lackluster quarters afterward. Watching the game tape before moving on to the next opponent allowed us as players to identify the simple adjustments Regina made to stifle our scoring, and also see the holes in coverage and points left on the board. We reviewed our game, marked ourselves for improvement, but knew there was a lot of work left to become a full four quarter explosive offense.
Come November, we found ourselves in the CanadaWest semi-final after spending a week off with a bye through the first round. Our opponent? The U of Regina Rams. The game itself was played at UBC due to field issues, but we knew who the home team was. Now, what had we learned and did we put it to use? We knew Regina was a physical team that played to the final whistle, regardless of the deficit. We knew we could hang points at them through the air to the tune of 28 in one quarter, but since then they’d essentially shut us out of three consecutive quarters. We knew this was the playoffs and the loser would go home while the winner would advance. Game ON!
In what amounted to an absolute attrition of skill and plays, we overcame a shootout for the ages to beat Regina 53-46 in regulation time. I wish I could remember the scoring breakdown by quarters, but I can tell you the game felt like it was played on fast forward for the offense. Neither team enjoyed more than a 14-point lead at any time in the game, and no matter how much we scored, they’d respond. Not only did we learn all our lessons by barely beating Regina with a big start in the first game, now we had to make things up as we went and just keep scoring. The holes we knew would be there vanished by halftime, the coverages constantly changed, and the route progressions were never the same on identical plays…a LOT more audibles in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
We’d improved as an offense since our first game against Regina, but so had Regina, and this time they didn’t spot us 28 points in the first quarter. Instead we followed the same plan and executed it better. In the end we won because we’d improved more than Regina, and therein lied the key: each week moving forward a team either regresses or progresses. Both teams had progressed, but we improved more than they did. If it wasn’t for that near blowout/close win in September to illustrate just how good we could be if we plugged the holes in our offense, Regina might have won. As it was, SFU advanced and knocked off the U of Alberta a week later to take it’s first ever Hardy Cup as CanadaWest Champions.
Winning teams regress because success brings about a false sense of security. Winning covers up a lot of mistakes while losing exposes them. The 49ers appear to be improving every week with Kaepernick under center and continue to beat better teams along the way. New England came in with a seven-game winning streak and a two-time Super Bowl MVP under center. The 49ers did them a huge favor by punching them in the mouth and beating them at home. Why? The Patriots needed this game to keep status quo. The 49ers needed it to grow. Not only did they grow, but they also showed why they already have the best defense in football, and with Kaepernick under center they might have the best team too. Now everybody knows it as well.
The Patriots aren’t good enough to knock off the 49ers right now, meaning they won’t be able to knock them off later down the road unless they first catch and then surpass them. Gronkowksi’s return and Brady’s aggressive play will make the Patriots better instantly, but how much better? Every game, win or loss, counts for something. Those who learn win, those who don’t go home empty. Only the lucky get a second chance.
The Patriots should consider themselves lucky for having learned about the 49ers the hard way this early in the schedule. If they see each other in New Orleans, we’ll find out if they learned anything.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.