49ers blow big lead, rally for win over Patriots


49ers blow big lead, rally for win over Patriots


FOXBORO, Mass. -- The 49ers were well on their way to a rout of the favored New England Patriots on Sunday night.

And, then, their world quickly came apart at the seams.

But a 28-point cushion was all the 49ers lost. After seeing their four-touchdown lead vanish into the freezing drizzle at Gillette Stadium, the 49ers did not completely fall apart.

"We're a fighting team and we'll play for 60 minutes," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said.

The 49ers clinched a spot in the NFC playoffs with an improbable 41-34 victory over the Patriots that had a little bit of everything.

And just when it looked its most bleak for the 49ers, second-round draft pick LaMichael James provided his first big moment with the team.

With the 49ers' 31-3 lead suddenly gone, James, who was inactive for the 49ers' first 12 games of the season, went back deep to receive the kickoff with 6:43 remaining with the score tied.

Did any of his teammates say anything before the kickoff return?

"Everyone said something," James said.

The 49ers needed a boost. Everybody knew the 49ers were in danger of one of the great collapses in NFL history. And James supplied a huge momentum swing with a 62-yard kickoff return. Delanie Walker told James to follow him, and that's exactly what James did, as he tip-toed the left sideline.

"One play doesn't win a game, but I think it put us in good position to get the score," James said. "It was a game-changing play, and it helped us win."

The go-ahead touchdown came on the next play, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree improvised on a 38-yard touchdown, which came on a long run after a 5-yard hitch.

"(It) was a nice job by Colin," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "(It's) not where he was supposed to go with the ball. It 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."

Why did Kaepernick make that throw?

"I liked the matchup," Kaepernick said.

The Patriots came with an all-out blitz, and Kaepernick got the ball out quickly to Crabtree, who broke the tackle attempt of cornerback Kyle Arrington and then beat safety Devin McCourty into the end zone.

Kaepernick, making his fifth NFL start, completed 14 of 25 passes for 216 yards with four touchdown passes and one interception. His passer rating was 107.7. Crabtree caught seven passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns. It was the most points the 49ers have scored in a road game since a 45-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 3, 2000.

The 49ers overcame four Kaepernick fumbled snaps (none of which was lost), a missed field goal and two turnovers to foil prime scoring chances. The 49ers generated four turnovers against the Patriots, who turned the ball over just 10 times in their first 13 games.

The 49ers (10-3-1) wrapped up a spot in the NFC playoffs with the victory. They can clinch their second straight NFC West title with one win in their final two games -- at the Seattle Seahawks or against the Arizona Cardinals.

New England entered the game with a seven-game win streak and a string of 20 consecutive home victories in December.

"Great victory," Harbaugh said. "I really liked how our team sucked it up so many times. We didn't make all the plays, buy we made a lot of plays. It will be a happy flight home."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who had just 76 yards passing at halftime, spearheaded a rally that saw New England score touchdowns of consecutive drives of 73, 86, 66 and 92 yards.

Brady finished with 36 completions in 65 attempts for 443 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Kaepernick managed to hold it all together after the Patriots rallied to tie the score. Kaepernick fumbled four exchanges from center Jonathan Goodwin, including one on a failed fourth-down quarterback sneak attempt, prompting him to wear a glove on his non-throwing hand to get a better grip, he said.

Kaepernick threw an interception on a deep pass in the end zone to end the 49ers' first drive of the third quarter. But the 49ers got the ball back on Dashon Goldson's 66-yard fumble return. On the next play, Kaepernick fumbled the snap, but running back Frank Gore picked it up and scored on a 9-yard fumble recovery.

After 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith intercepted Brady on the next drive, Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a 27-yard touchdown for a 31-3 lead.

"I just feel this in my bones, after you throw an interception, it's very hard to lead a touchdown drive the next possession," Harbaugh said. "Basically, step back in there, throw the ball right down the middle, which he had done in a previous possession, and had it intercepted. It takes some gravel in your guts to do that. I think it says a lot."

Said Kaepernick, "We were just trying to stay calm about it. I kept talking to our offense, saying we have to keep putting up points. We're going to have to score at some point, especially the way they were putting up points."

In a game of wild and prolonged momentum swings, the 49ers could never feel completely secure with the victory until Walker recovered Stephen Gostowski's onside kick with :38 seconds remaining. Walker himself had a fumble deep in Patriots territory in the first half and caught a 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

"If we had any doubters before this," Walker said, "I don't think we have doubters now."

Mailbag: Are 49ers trying to win or develop players?


Mailbag: Are 49ers trying to win or develop players?

After five consecutive close losses and some reason for optimism, it all came crashing down for the 49ers on Sunday.

Rookie Trent Taylor fumbled a punt just one minute into the game. Ninety seconds later, the Dallas Cowboys scored.

And it was over.

The Cowboys steamrolled the 49ers, 40-10, providing a slap across the face to anyone who believed this rebuild of the franchise was trending consistently upward without any complications.

The team appeared to be moving along harmoniously. But on Sunday, there was an incident in which Jaquiski Tartt, Ahkello Witherspoon and Ray-Ray Armstrong were seen jawing at each other. Things got heated. The optics in a home blowout loss were not good.

There are plenty of questions, and here are some of the questions from The Day After that were submitted on our Facebook page:

What is the philosophy? Are we trying to win or develop players? Cause it seems you can't do both? (Frank Vega)
The 49ers are definitely trying to develop players. They are also trying to evaluate players. They are looking to the future, and they are not deploying a win-at-all-cost approach this season. They do not want to win an extra game or two this season at the expense of possibly making the team worse for the future.

That is why the 49ers, almost invariably, went with younger players at any position in which there was competition . . . Eli Harold over Ahmad Brooks; Trent Taylor over Jeremy Kerley; Raheem Mostert over Tim Hightower; etc.

It’s why the 49ers made the decision two weeks ago to part ways with NaVorro Bowman, who had expressed dissatisfaction over his reduced role. Bowman was still the 49ers’ best linebacker at the time. But he would not have been on the team next year, so the decision was made to release Bowman now and go with the other less-accomplished players. (The Raiders, by the way, say 'Thank you.')

Rookie C.J. Beathard is now the starting quarterback. Cole Hikutini has moved into the No. 2 role at tight end behind fellow rookie George Kittle. Ahkello Witherspoon is being weaved into the action at cornerback, splitting time with Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson.

The 49ers did not want to create a mirage. They did not want to win any games this season that would be the result of a veteran rent-a-player approach. In that respect, the 49ers have succeeded. The 49ers will be picking near the top of every round in the 2018 draft.

The risk, of course, is that the young players get beaten down so badly that they lose their confidence and their edge.

What do you make of Eric Reid’s move to LB? Is his time with Niners nearing the end? (Peter Chan)
The 49ers no longer use a “nickel” defense. They go straight from their base defense to six defensive backs whenever the opposition puts more than two wide receivers on the field. It’s not a true linebacker position Reid is playing. It’s considered more of a “big nickel," designed to give the 49ers more speed on third downs to cover and run to the ball.

Reid is no longer a starter. What it shows is that the 49ers are sold on Jaquiski Tartt being a long-term answer for the 49ers secondary. The 49ers view Tartt and Jimmie Ward as the starters for 2018. All things being equal, Reid will have a chance to go somewhere else next season and be a starter.

The 49ers are not committed to re-signing him on a deal that extends beyond this season.

Is it a coincidence that the two worst teams in the NFL have the most cap space? (Gary Staebler)
That is no coincidence at all. It is the very reason the Cleveland Browns and 49ers are the only two winless teams in the NFL.

The Browns have $61.6 million in cap space. The 49ers are currently $61 million under the cap. Next year, with carryovers of unused space, the 49ers and Browns are projected to both have more than $117 million in cap room, according to Overthecap.com.

Bad teams do not draft well.

Teams that do not draft well, do not sign their draft picks to lucrative second contracts.

Therefore, teams that do not draft well cannot spend a large portion of their cap space to retain their own players because they have no good players worth retaining.

49ers snap count: Reid no longer starter; rookies see more time on offense


49ers snap count: Reid no longer starter; rookies see more time on offense

Veteran safety Eric Reid returned from a knee injury that kept him out three games to discover he lost his starting job.

Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt has continued to serve as an every-down player for the 49ers’ defense. On Sunday, Reid played 48 snaps (64 percent) as the 49ers employed six defensive backs against the Dallas Cowboys three-receiver sets.

The 49ers had to adjust their sub package after nickel back K’Waun Williams sustained a hip injury. Rookie Adrian Colbert entered the game at safety with Jimmie Ward taking over Williams’ role. Colbert played 29 snaps.

Newly signed defensive linemen Leger Douzable and Tony McDaniel saw a lot of action in their 49ers debuts. Douzable played the third-most of any defensive lineman (behind Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner), seeing action on 47 of the team’s 75 snaps. McDaniel played 25 snaps.

On offense, the 49ers appear to be making a point to go with younger players. Rookie Cole Hikutini played 21 snaps, taking over as the No. 2 tight end over Garrett Celek and Logan Paulsen.

Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, another undrafted rookie, played a season-high 23 snaps. On fourth-and-4 from the Dallas 28 early in the third quarter, coach Kyle Shanahan decided to go for it instead of kicking a 46-yard field goal. Bourne was the intended target. But he stumbled after a spin move from the slot, and C.J. Beathard’s pass was incomplete.

“As I was throwing the ball he tripped,” Beathard said. “If he hadn’t tripped on a DB’s feet or whatever happened there, it would’ve been a big play.”

Here is a look at the 49ers’ playing time on offense, defense and special teams:

(66 plays)
Quarterback – C.J. Beathard 66
Running back – Carlos Hyde 51, Matt Breida 15
Wide receiver – Pierre Garçon 46, Trent Taylor 46, Marquise Goodwin 39, Aldrick Robinson 30, Kendrick Bourne 23
Tight end – George Kittle 31, Cole Hikutini 21, Garrett Celek 18, Logan Paulsen 11
Offensive line – Joe Staley 66, Daniel Kilgore 66, Laken Tomlinson 66, Brandon Fusco 52, Trent Brown 45, Garry Gilliam 20, Zane Beadles 14

(75 plays)
Defensive line – Solomon Thomas 61, DeForest Buckner 50, Leger Douzable 47, Earl Mitchell 38, Xavier Cooper 26, D.J. Jones 25, Tony McDaniel 25, Elvis Dumervil 15
Linebacker – Reuben Foster 53, Eli Harold 31, Ray-Ray Armstrong 27, Brock Coyle 22, Dekoda Watson 9
Cornerback – Dontae Johnson 63, Rashard Robinson 51, Ahkello Witherspoon 35, K’Waun Williams 20
Safety – Jaquiski Tartt 75, Jimmie Ward 75, Eric Reid 48, Adrian Colbert 29

(24 plays)
Elijah Lee 21, Coyle 21, Raheem Mostert 16, Celek 15, Colbert 16, Witherspoon 15, Breida 14, Harold 12, Hikutini 12, Armstrong 10, Tartt 10, Bradley Pinion 9, Jones 8, R.Robinson 8, Ward 8, Johnson 7, Kyle Nelson 6, Buckner 6, Thomas 6, Paulsen 6, Reid 5, Mitchell 5, Douzable 4, A.Robinson 3, Taylor 3, Robbie Gould 2, Foster 2, Staley 2, Kilgore 2, Gilliam 2, Beadles 2, Tomlinson 1, Fusco 1, Brown 1, Dumervil 1, Watson 1, Williams 1

QB Brian Hoyer

WR Victor Bolden
DB Dexter McCoil
FB Kyle Juszczyk (back)
LB Mark Nzeocha
LB Pita Taumoepenu
DL Aaron Lynch (calf)
OL Erik Magnuson