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49ers Win in All 3 Phases

Posted Dec 17, 2012

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Carlos Rogers isn’t a wide receiver, but he looked like one for a moment on Sunday. Likewise, Dashon Goldson isn’t a running back, but he sure moved like one.

Once again, the 49ers received a big boost from their defense and special teams on Sunday night, giving San Francisco just enough to edge the hometown Patriots in a thrilling 41-34 contest in front of a nationwide audience.

Enveloped in the trademark cold, wind and rain of Foxborough in winter, the 49ers (10-3-1) weren’t fazed. In the end, they pulled off something no one had done in a decade: a December victory in New England.

“That’s what we’re about,” Rogers said after the 49ers clinched their second straight playoff berth. “Our statement is to come out with a physical presence. We don’t think they’ve faced a defense like us all season.”

Not only that, but it came on about the biggest regular season stage you could ask for. On the road. In New England. Bad weather. Sunday Night Football.

But by now, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t surprised with his team’s ability to rise to the occasion.

“I used to live next to a train station in Chicago. The more you hear the train, the less you hear it,” Harbaugh said. “I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure and big games. The more you hear it, the less you hear it. The more you feel it, the less you feel it. I feel good about our team in those big-game situations.”

At one point, it looked to be a blowout. Propelled by takeaways and a quick strike offense, the 49ers held a commanding 31-3 lead over the Patriots in the third quarter, something almost unheard of against a Bill Belicheck-coached team.

True to form, Tom Brady took the 28-point deficit as a great opportunity to show why he’s considered one of the premier quarterbacks in NFL history.

While taking less than 20 minutes off the game clock, Brady captained four touchdown drives. Just like that, it was 31-31 with 6:43 left in the game.

“That’s the first time in my six years that we’ve had an offense, especially a quarterback, be able to just do some of the things he did,” 49ers defensive captain Patrick Willis said. “That guy is for sure going to walk his way into the Hall of Fame, there’s no question about that.

“But we won the battle today and today is what counts.”

Shortly after Danny Woodhead scored the game-tying touchdown from close range, LaMichael James had a fateful conversation with Delanie Walker on the sidelines.

“I told him, 'Hey man, we need to make a play. You going to make this play? You got me?'” James said. “And that's exactly how it went. Delanie was, like, 'I got you, bro. Just follow me.' This is before I even took off. You can ask him.”

James wasn’t lying when he said he took off.

The second-round pick out of Oregon showed why he was one college football’s best players over the past three seasons, using his speed and quickness to reel off a game-changing, 62-yard return down the left sideline. He also showed some toughness at the end of the run, as he dragged a defender for more than 10 yards before being tackled.

“I just followed Delanie, man,” James said.

But it wasn’t just Walker who gave the rookie words of encouragement. Up and down the whole sideline, James’ teammates told him they were counting on him to make a big play.

And did he ever.

“They believed in me,” James said, while adding this game will be huge for his confidence. “Any time teammates can say anything like that to you, it makes you want to go out there and fight for them. I love my teammates, I really do. They're like my brothers. Offensively, defensively, no matter who it is, I want to go out there and make plays for those guys.”

So why was James’ return so pivotal?

Michael Crabtree hauled in his second touchdown, the game-winner, on the very next snap. Colin Kaepernick read single coverage on the left side of the field and made the quick throw to Crabtree, who spun past Kyle Arrington and sprinted down the sideline for a 38-yard touchdown.

Crabtree finished the afternoon with seven catches for 107 yards and two scores, while Kaepernick went 19 of 25 for 216 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.

“Michael makes the big run after catch, which he's done for us all year long,” Harbaugh said. “Just a tremendous effort by him. Nice job by Colin, that was not where he was supposed to go with the ball. That wasn't the intent of the play, but he saw what he saw, kicked it out to Michael and then Michael made a huge play.”

The marquee matchup was billed as a strength vs. strength showdown, as the 49ers entered with the league’s top ranked defense and the Patriots toted the NFL’s No. 1 offense.

There was no doubt as to who won the battle early. Led by Brady, the Patriots managed just one first down in the first quarter, while turning the ball over twice and punting thrice.

Rogers turned in the evening’s first big takeaway, when he ran stride for stride with wideout Wes Welker down the right seam before hauling in an over the shoulder pass nearly 60 yards down field. He was just getting started, though. Weaving between blockers and would-be tacklers, Rogers brought the ball all the way down to the New England 5 after a 53-yard return.

Next it was NaVorro Bowman’s turn. The All-Pro linebacker jarred the ball loose from Shane Vereen on a screen pass near the end of the first quarter, before Chris Culliver recovered it right in front of the 49ers sideline.

“We played a very San Francisco defensive game today,” Bowman said. “I’m just proud of everyone.”

Meanwhile, Kaepernick had the 49ers offense moving down the field. The second-year signal-caller led San Francisco to a 17-3 lead by halftime.

The advantage eventually ballooned to 31-3 thanks to two more big turnovers by the 49ers. The first came when Donte Whitner made a picture perfect tackle of Stevan Ridley, putting his gold helmet on the football and sending it skyward.

Goldson was there to nab it out of the air and sprint down the left sideline with an entourage of blockers in front of him. He was finally taken down at the New England 6-yard line after a 66-yard return. Coupled with his 31-yard rush on a great fake punt call in the first quarter, Goldson picked up plenty of yards on the ground Sunday night. In fact, he was tied with James as the second-leading rusher on the 49ers.

“We focused on getting the turnovers,” Rogers said. “Any time we knock that ball out, get a pick, we give our offense more opportunity to score and put the ball in the end zone.”

Right on cue, Frank Gore alertly scooped up a fumbled snap on the next play and scooted into the end zone for a touchdown, making it 24-3. But the 49ers still had a couple more big plays left in them.

If you’re going to pick one quarterback to get your first career interception from, Brady isn’t a bad one to choose. That’s exactly what Aldon Smith did, as the NFL co-leader in sacks showed he can do more than just pass rush.

Sure, Smith caused plenty of pressure on Brady all night, but the interception was his highlight play of the game. Dropping back in coverage in the left flat, Smith batted the ball out of the air and made it bounce off Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez before quickly grabbing it for real.

“Sounds pretty good, you know?” Smith said of recording his first pick against the future Hall of Famer.

The next snap, Kaepernick lofted a tight touchdown spiral to Crabtree down the middle in between three defenders and the 49ers held a 31-3 lead.

Despite Brady’s near-comeback, Harbaugh was pleased with his defense’s effort.  Naturally, the unit was responsible for one final stop in the game’s late stages.

With score at 38-31 after Crabtree’s second touchdown, Ricky Jean Francois and Ray McDonald sacked Brady on back-to-back plays to force a punt with less than five minutes left in the game. After the teams traded field goals, the game finally ended and the 49ers punched their ticket to the playoffs.

“We did a good job defensively,” said McDonald, who also sacked Brady in first quarter. “It’s a big win for us.”

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