After a wildly entertaining 41-34 home-field loss at the hands of the visiting San Francisco 49ers, the New England Patriots have fallen to 10-4 with just two games left to play in the regular season.
Here are the five most important things that we learned on Sunday night.
Sloppy starts make for an awfully tough uphill climb
A 31-3 deficit in the third quarter of an NFL game is a slippery slope to climb for any football team. After allowing 24 consecutive points from the middle of the second quarter up until early the third, the Patriots were all but out of it with just less than thirty minutes to play. Of course, they'd make a fantastic comeback and nearly won the game, but it doesn't change the fact that recovering from such a slow start is near-impossible in the NFL, especially against a team as good as the 49ers.
Ball security, ball security, ball security
In last week's review of the 42-14 win over Houston, I told you all about how the Patriots' ball security problems would go overlooked in what was, for the most part, a masterful performance. However, it isn't going to go unnoticed now. Running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both put the ball on the ground during Sunday's game against San Francisco and both times the ball was recovered by the 49ers. Neither sophomore tailback saw much of the field after fumbling, as Danny Woodhead was brought in for most of the snaps. Trust is a hugely important factor in football, especially in the ground game. At this point, I'm not sure Bill Belichick can trust any of his three running back's ability to protect the football.
Tom Brady is... Tom Brady
Down 31-3, the Patriots could have mailed it in. They could have given up and taken the time to rest some of their starters with an eye toward the postseason. However, led by an extraordinary showing from quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots reeled off 28 straight points and tied the football game at 31. Against the best defense in the entire NFL, Brady led his offense to four consecutive touchdown drives while racking up a total of 443 passing yards. This is the part where I'd typically tell you all about just how remarkable that type of effort is, but you all already know that. It's Tom Brady just being Tom Brady.
49ers aren't perfect, but are the most well-rounded team in the game
Despite the above-mentioned comeback, a by-product of sitting back in a prevent defense with a huge lead, the 49ers played a phenomenal game on Sunday. San Francisco came into Foxboro and completely beat down the Patriots in their own backyard, something few teams have been able to do in the past decade. A rare combination of suffocating defense and big-play offense has put Jim Harbaugh's 49ers in prime position to make a run at the Super Bowl this season. Harbaugh and the Niners had the perfect game plan to beat the Patriots; a tough, physical defense and a willingness to be aggressive. How many times did we see the 49ers pass the football on first down? How about the fake punt on 4th down and 10? Or taking a shot to Michael Crabtree against the blitz just after the Patriots had tied the score? San Francisco dictated this game to the Patriots while writing up the perfect blueprint for how to stop what looks like the best team in the AFC. Impressive, indeed.
Patriots best-suited to lose their next two games
As I wrote on Sunday evening after the loss to San Francisco, the Patriots would be best-suited to land at the No. 4 seed in the AFC, as opposed to the No. 3 spot where they currently reside. As it turns out, the road to New Orleans and a return to the Super Bowl could be made one heck of a lot easier with a pair of losses to end this regular season. Read all about how, here.
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